If I Were You, I’d Study Up on My Presidential Trivia

Which president weighed more than 300 pounds and allegedly got stuck in the White House bathtub?

Let’s narrow it down. Was it:

  1. Rutherford B. Hayes
  2. Theodore Roosevelt
  3. William Howard Taft
  4. Martin Van Buren

The answer is C—William Howard Taft—a fact I learned about a year ago when I started studying up on presidential history for a trivia league. (Before that, I would’ve gone with Hayes. Rutherford just sounds like the kind of guy who’d be stuck in a bathtub somewhere.) So when I posed that same question to an eight-year-old girl and she said, “William Howard Taft,” I was gobsmacked. Lest you think she just got lucky, she also knew that James Madison was the shortest president and that William Henry Harrison had the shortest presidential term.

Now, I don’t have kids, and I’m not around my friends’ kids all that often—kids just aren’t my thing—but I was positively charmed by this presidential-fact-knowing, rubber band-lobster-making, piano-playing eight-year-old and her sister—the sweetest, cuddliest six-year-old on the planet. I recently had the opportunity to spend the day with them—their mother, Laila, has been my friend since fourth grade—and it was one of the nicest days I’ve had in years.

So I’m dedicating today’s blog to them. Not too long ago, Laila asked me to write a post on the correct use of the subjunctive mood. Laila—this long-distance request goes out to you.

First, let’s define what we mean by “mood.” In this context, mood refers to how a verb expresses an action or a state of being. Moods can be:

  1. Indicative. This includes statements like, “James Buchanan is the only president who never married.”
  2. Imperative. This includes commands like, “Stay out of that bathtub, William Howard Taft!”
  3. Subjunctive. This mood is all about hypothetical situations or ideas that are contrary to fact. Like, “If I were Andrew Jackson, I never would’ve signed that Indian Removal Act,” or “If Schuyler Colfax had gone to that play instead—as Lincoln asked—Lincoln’s fate might have been much different.”

1 and 2 are straightforward, but the subjunctive mood often trips people up. How many times have you heard someone say, “If I was you, I’d….”? Too many. (That very construction is the reason Laila asked me to write this in the first place—it drives her crazy.)

So let’s make this simple. The present subjective always uses “were” (never “was”), and the past subjective always uses “had.”

Why the confusion? Honestly, I can’t ever remember discussing mood in English class. I remember it from Spanish. So maybe that’s part of it—it’s just not that widely taught.

But there’s also the fact that not every “If I…” construction is subjunctive. Take these sentences from cliffsnotes.com. (Yep—that CliffsNotes—who knew they did more than tell you what you should be getting out of books like “Call of the Wild” and “Animal Farm”?)

  1. If I was wrong, I’m sorry.
  2. If I were wrong, I’m sorry.

According to Cliff, “The first sentence is in the indicative mood — it actually offers up the speaker’s apology. The second sentence, in the subjunctive mood, states either a) that an apology would be forthcoming if the speaker’s error comes to light, or b) that the fact that the speaker hasn’t offered an apology indicates that he or she was not wrong. In either case, in this second sentence, the speaker’s error and apology are both hypothetical, and therefore the sentence is in the subjunctive mood.”

So that clears that up.

Do you have a favorite president or favorite bit of presidential trivia? Doesn’t “Rutherford” sound like a man stuck in a bathtub? And did you cover mood in English class?

Word of the Week: Gobsmacked
Song of the Week: James K. Polk, by They Might Be Giants

The King’s English, Part II

“Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Imagine Frankenstein’s monster on its slab. Here comes lightning, not from the sky but from a humble paragraph of English words. Maybe it’s the first really good paragraph you’ve ever written, something so fragile and yet full of possibility that you’re frightened. ‘Oh my God, it’s breathing,’ you realize. ‘What in hell’s name do I do next?’” –Stephen King, from “On Writing”

The first time I wrote something I was really proud of was in 10th grade. The assignment was simple: a one-pager titled, “Dinner at My House.” It was a “show, don’t tell” exercise, and I wrote the whole thing as dialogue. When I was finished, I looked at and thought, “Yeah—that’s pretty much what it’s like.”

Was it like Frankenstein’s monster coming to life? Not so much—I think only geniuses like Stephen King have experiences like that—but I do know what he means when he says that paragraphs “begin to breathe.” That’s the difference between “okay” writing and “good” writing—good writing pulses with vitality. It pulses with humanity.

In his book “On Writing,” Stephen King writes that “while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” In part one of this blog, I focused on King’s “toolbox”—the items (vocabulary, grammar, etc.) you have to possess in order to write well. Today we’re going to look beyond those tools to items that can breathe life into otherwise flatlining prose.

You Have to Read. A Lot.
“If you want to be a good writer,” cautions King, “you must do two things—read a lot and write a lot.” The writing component of this advice is obvious—the best way to learn and improve is by doing. But reading is just as critical. Why? Because you learn what works—and what doesn’t. King continues, “Most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this!” My friend, Lisa, and I often talk about how we missed the boat on “Twilight,” Stephenie Meyer’s sparkly vampire series. “Her writing is awful!” Lisa laments. “We could have done so much better.” Maybe. But we didn’t. That’s why I’m writing a Stephen King blog and Stephenie is probably somewhere tropical planning her next series about the misadventures of mermen.

Reading also gives you inspiration to try new things. I once summarized The Brothers Grimm’s “Godfather Death” into the introduction of a Plante Moran magazine article. Another time, I worked the boiling frog parable into yet another article. (It was a good metaphor for underperforming companies becoming accustomed to deteriorating conditions.) Writing is all about making connections with your audience, and reading helps strengthen your ability to make those connections.

Speaking of Your Audience…
So often, we set out to write an article on a given topic without really thinking about who we’re writing it for. But it’s critical to have a specific person/group of people in mind. Think about it—if you’re a CEO of a healthcare organization, what you want to know about cybersecurity is going to be a lot different than if you’re a technology director at a manufacturing company.

I sometimes think of an article as an extended letter. If you mentally start it with “Dear manufacturing CEO who is feeling pressured to open an office in Mexico,” that article is going to progress a lot differently than if you just start writing about the challenges of operating internationally. That’s not to say that a general approach can’t be effective, too—but you have to have a strategy behind why you’re writing it that way.

Write With the Door Open.
At some point I’ll likely do an entire blog about the art of revision, but it merits addressing here as well. King advocates for at least two drafts of any piece of writing. “When you write a story,” he says, “you’re telling yourself that story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story. Write with the door closed. Rewrite with the door open.”

There are, of course, both obvious and subtle differences between fiction and business writing. For business writing, I would argue that the door should never be completely closed—you should always at least start with some idea of who your audience is—but I think the gist of the advice is sound. The first draft is for you—the second is for everyone else.

About that second draft—King has a formula which I think is pretty genius. The second draft equals the first draft minus 10 percent. Every piece of writing “is collapsible to some degree,” he says. Absolutely.

So how about you? Does your writing inflate or collapse upon subsequent drafts? What do you think about the “minus 10 percent” rule? And if you’re reading “On Writing,” what do you think so far?

Word of the Week: Fracas
Song of the Week: “Regarding Steven,” by Blues Traveler

The King’s English, Part I

“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair…. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.” –Stephen King, from “On Writing”

Most people have a favorite teacher—someone who challenged, supported, advocated, or otherwise molded them into the people they ultimately became. I had two: Mr. Thompson, my high school advanced composition teacher, and Dr. Phillip Arrington, my “writing about controversies” professor at Eastern Michigan University. (I even elected to do my graduate work at Eastern just so I could take more classes with him. He eventually served as my thesis advisor.)

These men are my favorites because they made me better. As early as eighth grade, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about writing because I’d mastered the five-paragraph essay and successfully incorporated phrases like “surreptitious malingerer” into said essays. (I could be pretty obnoxious back then.) Among other things, they taught me the importance of showing versus telling, using clear, unaffected language, and learning the rules just so I could more effectively break them.

I discovered “On Writing” at a time when I really needed it—in 2002, right around the time I began to make my transition from proofreader to writer at Plante Moran. It echoes much of what I learned from Mr. Thompson and Dr. Arrington, and it sheds light on how Stephen King became such a masterful storyteller.

I set out to write a single blog containing some of my favorite quotes from the book, but guess what? There’s too many for just one blog. So welcome to part one of two. Today’s blog will focus on King’s “toolbox.”

“To write to your best abilities,” says King, “it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle to carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.” Makes sense, right? So what does one’s toolbox contain?

First and foremost, vocabulary. “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.” (Surreptitious malingerer, anyone?) King suggests—correctly—to use the first word that comes to your mind, as long as it’s appropriate and reasonably colorful. If you hesitate, odds are you’ll think of another word—there’s always another word—that isn’t as close to what you really mean.

Second, grammar, which King says is “the pole you use to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking.” That’s a huge topic, but we’re going to narrow it down to my favorite gem: Avoid the passive voice. In most instances, I hate, hate, hate the passive voice. It’s as if the writer is intentionally trying to make his/her writing murky. “The passive voice is safe,” writes King. “There’s no troublesome action to contend with.”

Consider these sentences:

  • Debbi won an award for best technology professional. (This is active voice.)
  • The award for best technology professional was won by Debbi. (This is passive voice.)

Which sentence is clearer, more concise, and altogether better? The active one, of course, so don’t be afraid of it. Own that action.

Finally, we get to paragraphing. King says, “The ideal expository paragraph contains a topic sentence followed by others which explain or amplify the first.” He calls paragraphs “maps of intent.” So what are your intentions with your audience? If you’re like most people, you want to inform and entertain—which is why this becomes so important.

Think about it. If you click on an article and find a 30+ line paragraph, what does that suggest? A long, arduous, do-I-really-have-to-read-that piece of writing. No one has the time, patience, or attention span for that. Concise paragraphs with lots of white space are the way to go. King suggests they be “as airy as Dairy Queen ice cream cones,” which I love (that phrasing and the DQ cones*). Paragraphs are your friends. I would suggest you use a lot of them.

That’s it for today. I’ll be back in two weeks with part two of The King’s English. In the meantime, talk to me. Have you read “On Writing”? Who was your favorite teacher and why? What do you order at Dairy Queen? And did you know Anthrax’s “Among the Living” was written about Stephen King’s “The Stand”?

*Although for my money, when it comes to Dairy Queen, it’s all about the chocolate-covered cherry Blizzard. Delicious.

Words of the Week: Surreptitious and Malingerer

Song of the Week: “Among the Living,” by Anthrax


The Most Important Things Are the Hardest to Say

Every graduate-level literature class I took started the same way: “Tell us your name and the name of your favorite writer.” I always faced a dilemma—join in the choruses of Joyce, Pynchon, and Kerouac, or be honest.

Sometimes I’d stretch the truth and cite William Faulkner (“As I Lay Dying” is amazing), J.D. Salinger (“Nine Stories” was a pivotal book for me), or Raymond Carver (his short stories are phenomenal). This would be met with the obligatory murmurs of agreement, and we’d move on. When I told the truth, however—when I admitted that my favorite writer was Stephen King—I’d spend the rest of the semester trying to regain the credibility I’d lost with that statement.

Why? Because he wasn’t considered a “serious writer.”

Times haven’t changed much since I was in grad school. When King was given the U.S. National Book Foundation’s annual award for “distinguished contribution to American letters,” Yale University literary critic Harold Bloom summed up the honor thusly: “Another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life.” He then continued, “I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis. Stephen King is beneath the notice of any serious reader who has experienced Proust, Joyce, Henry James, Faulkner and all the other masters of the novel.”

As my husband would say, “Horseshit.” I’ve experienced all of those writers, and none moves, excites, or inspires me more than Stephen King. In his novella, The Body (on which “Stand by Me,” my favorite childhood movie, was based), he writes in his opening paragraph:

“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them—words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”

That was it—that’s what sucked me into the world of Stephen King, and there I’ve remained for nearly 30 years. Some of his catalog is stronger than others, but when you start one of his books, you always know you’re in good hands—that there’s a well-though-out plan (he doesn’t like the use of the word “plot”) and that you’ll be in the company of characters that are at once familiar and polarizing. At his best (“Different Seasons,” “Cujo” (which I argue is a naturalistic novel—move over Stephen Crane), “Lisey’s Story,” “The Stand”, and “On Writing”), he’s riveting. At his worst (“Rose Red,” “Dreamcatcher,” “The Tommyknockers”), he’s still pretty good

I mention “On Writing.” Back in 2000, King wrote a memoir on the craft or writing. It’s outstanding. If I were still teaching at Eastern Michigan University, and if I had the opportunity to teach a fiction course, this is the book I would assign. (Even if I were still teaching freshman composition, I’d pull pieces from this to share.) Next time, I’ll be back with my top writing tips from that book.

In the meantime, how do you feel about Stephen King? Do you have a favorite book? Are there other authors who have unfairly been diminished because of their popularity?

Word of the Week:  Horseshit

Song of the Week: “Instant Karma,” by John Lennon