Monthly Archives: October 2010

Clearing up the Writer’s Fog

“Touching Fire” was a condemning chapter for writers in Betsy Lerner’s book, Forest for the Trees. It perpetuated the myth that writers are tortured and self-medicated. I am noticing more and more books about dealing with our fear of writing. Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes opens the first chapter with this quote from Cynthia Ozick: “If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage.”

It takes guts to sit down and write. Sometimes writers stall, drink, eat, sit around and look out the window instead of – writing.

In my weekly health management class, I get encouragement in the form of scientific proof that what I am trying to do for my weight can also help with my thinking process. I am certain that one of the big benefits of weight loss is clear thinking. It seems that the “fat fog” has lifted and I am able to handle higher levels of cognition. I could not prove this scientifically until I saw this proof.

According the Health Management Resources (HMR), unhealthy behaviors reduce cognitive functioning in later life. As I age, the biggest fear I have is not losing a limp or even my hearing. I fear losing my mind. You can adapt when you become disabled, but losing mental faculties is disastrous for a reader and writer. So when I saw this research, I was encouraged.

A 17-year study of 5,123 people examined the relationship between the following behaviors and cognition: lack of physical activity, low vegetable and fruit intake, smoking and excess alcohol intake. Assessment occurred during early midlife, midlife and late midlife. The risk of poor executive function and memory increased as follows:

  • Early midlife (mean age 44 years) unhealthy behaviors increased the risk of poor mental functioning by 84%
  • Midlife (mean age of 56) unhealthy behaviors increased the risk of poor mental functioning by 238%.
  • Late midlife (mean age of 61) unhealthy behaviors increased the risk of poor mental functioning by 276%

With this as evidence of what I was already experiencing, I feel we should advocate  healthy living for writers. When the blocks come – do something physical. When the fear over powers, eat something healthy. And when we are up against a deadline – take a break and do something fun. This will be a hard sell to the traditionalists, but it will extend our life and mind long beyond the latest deadline.


Grab your Demons by the Neck

I suggest you stalk your demons. Embrace them. If you are a writer, especially one who has been unable to make your work count or stick, you must grab your demons by the neck and face them down. And whatever you do, don’t censor yourself. There’s always time and editors for that. (Lerner, 2000)

Betsy Lerner in The Forest for the Trees, encourages “The Ambivalent Writer” to find the real reason they write. Writers who do extensive research and read broadly in the face of a deadline are called – procrastinators. Learner describes ambivalent writers as those too frightened to share their emotional truth. This writer is stuck and sadly that writing may never stick.

Lerner speaks the truth with a mentor’s heart. She says we write because we are haunted, bothered, and uneasy in the world. Writers suffer from excessive feelings and must bleed on-screen to find motivation – the reason they write. Nobody has to read this first vent, but it is part of the process. If you do not connect with your own heart – you will not connect with anyone else’s. There is enough writing out there for the head. People want writing for the heart. This explains the reason Creative Nonfiction is so popular . They want history, biography, and science in story form; they want narrative to matter.

Recently while watching Book TV on CSPAN,  I was mesmerized by Rebecca Skloot discuss her book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She writes about science, a topic I am not normally interested. She was talking about a woman, known to most medical researchers only by her cells, the HeLa cells. The author tells Henrietta’s little known story:

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

I would have switched the channels if they had told me the story of the women in their books that changed their world of medicine. They wrote science as narrative. I wanted to read this science book and know more about Henrietta Lacks. Rebecca Skloot allowed Henrietta’s life touch her own and it touches our heart. Skloot does more than write a textbook about cancer cells, she tells a

Henrietta Lacks 1940s

Henrietta Lacks 1940s

story she that haunted her about a poor black woman. “Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry.”


Writers carry around demons. Some of those demons are emotional, some are physical, some are spiritual, some are just stories that won’t go away – they haunt us and taunt us to deal with them. Writers are gifted with the opportunity to reach around and grab those things by the neck and wrestle it into words.

A wise graduate professor suggested that before we write anything else, that we deal with the elephant in the room. My Creative Nonfiction class has been a profound journey. It has forced me to look deep into the eyes of my demon and decide if I want to keep doing this writing thing. Why would anyone want to go through the agony of digging into the foundation of your soul, scaffolding your sentences so others can safely see what you are building? Then submit to the final humiliation – exposing your grammatical disability and giving your editor the power of life and death over your work? Why bother? That’s the question every writer must ask and answer. In that answer – you will find your motivation to write.

Henrietta Lacks 1940s

Words that can Change the World or a Piece of it

More rhetoric from Professor Michael D.C. Drout:

I want us to think about the different ways that speech can change the world (using) the Speech-Act Theory. The fundamental idea behind Speech-Act is just what the name implies: Speech is not just the communication of information, but also a kind of action that people perform and that therefore has social as well as communicative implications.

He goes on to use simple examples. A baseball player strikes out. Until the official – the umpire says it is out – it does not change the game. A fan can yell, “OUT!” but that does not change anything.  This illustrates “performative.” The speaker or writer can change worlds by using the right  performative words. Someone using performative does something as well as says or writes something – they change things.

For example, someone may try to seem to make a promise (which is a performative action) when he or she really is just giving information (which is not always performative). A promise is performative because after it has been made, a whole variety of expectations and obligations are now invoked.

Telling someone that you will promise to do something is not the same; nor is making it look like you have promised when you have not.

This is a powerful rhetorical thought. Changing someone’s world by things you say or write is a powerful tool – use it with care. The way we treat people at work or at home is the most basic way we use performative rhetoric. You do not have to be writing a speech or an essay or even a blog to change someone’s world forever. You can destroy someone’s self-esteem and career direction by the words you choose. Speaking the truth and nothing but in conversation, might damage your listener or reader. My husband simplifies this by saying, “You can be a blessing or a curse – you choose.”

Once while working with a group of women as the teacher, a woman said to me:

“You know by the way you teach and write – you have changed lives – I can not say I have ever done that for someone else. That is a powerful gift to have.”

I must humbly admit that this person was not complementing me, she was warning me. She was upset with me and wanted to let me know that I had power in the words I used or omitted.  She was right. Words once spoken are seldom forgotten. Forgiveness is obligatory, but if the words were performative in nature, they can do damage forever.

Our words can change an opinion, they can encourage and uplift. They have the same power to wound or damage. Words. Write and speak responsibly.

Rhetoric in the Political Season

I am looking forward to our rhetorical assignment in 6000 class. The timing is perfect as we are up against an important election this fall and the rhetoric is flying everywhere. I am thinking I want to take an op-ed piece that I totally disagree with and find the rhetorical fallacies.

I have found an additional source on rhetoric. Professor Michael Drout has the unusual skill of making boring English topics and making them lively and practical.

Michael Drout

The Modern Scholar is a series of online downloadable course with audio, a free PDF and even a test. Drout has a lively and fresh way of discussing everything English – grammar, literature and rhetoric.

His points are clear and easy to follow. In the book, A Way With Words: Writing, Rhetoric, and the Art of Persuasion, Drout provides an easy way to understand rhetoric and how it applies to real life.

Michael D.C. Drout is an associate professor of English at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. He teachers Old and Middle English, medieval literature, Chaucer, Fantasy, and science fiction. Drout says:

“We tend to think of “rhetoric” either as something bad and manipulative (when we discount speech as “just a bunch of rhetoric”) or as something elevated and perhaps overblown, but in fact rhetoric is simply (and complexly)the art of using words to change the world.

The word “rhetor” means “orator” or “teacher,”and the art of rhetoric was taught in ancient Greece for public purposes: convincing and inspiring one’s peers so that they would take courses of action you believed to be wise.

Don’t be a Cassandra

Drout further encourages us not to be a “Cassandra”.

In ancient Greek literature, Cassandra tricked the god Apollo into giving her the gift of prophesy. But as a punishment, Apollo cursed Cassandra to beright always but never to have anyone believe her. Cassandra thus exemplifies the rhetorically deficient person: She knows what is right, but she is unable to convince anyone to do anything about it.

I do not want to be a Cassandra. How about you?

Logos,Ethos, Pathos

Drout gives us a good way to remember the important rhetoric elements of logos, ethos, and pathos.

You can think of the three pieces, logos, ethos,and pathos, as logic, ethics, and sympathy (the root words are recognizable).

Fallacies to Play within Political Analysis

My son, who agrees with me about most things political made a comment that kind of made me feel good, but also made me say, “Hmmm.”  We were discussion political issues when he said,

” Mom, you should have a talk show about politics.”

Maybe I should. I know for certain, I need to understand and identify some of the Logical Fallacies. Some of the examples of these logical fallacies are mine and may contain rhetorical errors and thus another kind of logical fallacy. Please do not automatically assign Argumentum ad Hominem to me!

  • Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc. This is a fallacy somewhat related to asserting the consequent. This is a hard one to avoid. This is assuming that the converse of a true statement is automatically true. “The economy is failing, it must be George Bush’s fault. The war in Iran was a victor, it must be Obama’s presidency.”
  • Denying the Antecedent. People incorrectly assume the invese is true. Inverse takes a true statement and puts NOT on both sides.  “If the economy is not failing, it must not be George Bush’s fault. The war in Iran was not a victor, it must not be Obama’s fault.”

  • Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc. This fallacy is when a writer assumes that because something came after something else, the first thing caused the second thing. “Gore was in office during the birth of the internet, thus Gore invented the internet”.
  • Petitio Principii (Begging the Question). This fallacy is abused by newspaper columnists according to Professor Drout. This means you have asked the other side to concede the main point in the argument. A simple example:

If we are arguing about what to eat for dinner, you say, “just to speed things up, can’t you at least agree that we won’t eat seafood?” so that we can move on. But if I wanted to eat seafood, asking me to concede, for the sake of argument, that we won’t eat seafood, is begging the question: asking for me to give in preemptively.

To be fair and balanced...

An red flag for this fallacy:the use of an adjective or adverb to perform all the logical work in the sentence. When politicians campaign on the platform of eliminating “wasteful spending,” they are in fact begging the question. Everyone is against wasteful spending; there is no need to have an argument about it. The real question (which has been begged here) is which spending is wasteful and which is not. Therefore the word “wasteful” begs the question by trying to get you to agree that whatever spending the politician is against, you’re against too. You’ll see that this fallacy is related to the enthymeme: It assumes that you share the enthymeme with the speaker even when you don’t.

  • Attacking the Messenger: Argumentum ad Hominem

Argumentum ad hominem is probably most commonly used today in attacks on people’s intelligence: Candidate X is stupid; therefore his policies must be bad. Note that “candidate X is stupid, therefore we should not elect him” is a reasonable syllogism (with the enthymeme of “we should not elect stupid people”), but this says nothing about the policies the candidate is advocating.

  • Tu Quoque.

An example would be “famous actor X says that population control is a good idea, but he has eleven children.” Famous actor X may be a hypocrite, but that does not address the merits of the idea of population control, whatever they may be. The tu quoque fallacy is probably the most common in all of political discourse.

Red Herring (Ignoratio Elenchi—Irrelevant Thesis). Because tu quoque focuses on the hypocrisy of the speaker, it distracts the hearer or reader from the real issues. That is the same general idea of the red herring, which is an attempt to change the subject from one in which the speaker is losing to one in which he is likely to win.

Other Logical Fallacies

  • Sweeping Generalization (Dicto Simpliciter).
  • Appeal to Ignorance (Argumentum ad Ignorantiam).
  • Plurium Interrogationum (Too Many Questions).
  • and many more…