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Quote me not

From the MLK monument, Washington

As we celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday this year, I came across and re-read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. It’s a powerful and eloquent argument for his work, and it’s often quoted.

I love great quotes and I used to share them, a new one daily, in the signature line of my emails. But from reading King’s long letter and from work I’ve been doing to better understand writing and communicating, I’m now much less sure about the value and power of 8 or 12 or 20 word quotes in their ability to truly convey meaning and change minds. I also have in mind the controversy of the truncated quote carved into the new MLK monument in DC: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and rightiousness.”

The monument designers shortened away King’s true meaning, giving it, in fact, a different meaning, one not true to King’s ideas. Originally he had written: “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” The truncated quote is off the mark, and surely not true to Dr. King’s eloquence.

What happens with a short quote is that the author’s argument is trimmed away, leaving a better than average risk that the meaning a casual quote reader brings to it will be wrong. Not enough is there to supply the logic, argument, and rationale for what the author wanted to convey.

In our soundbite world, over-brief clips and quotes seem inevitable, but you see what happens to them: the quoter and the reader or hearer supply alternate meaning –there’s room for that. The originator has lost control, and the meaning is at risk. And though I am a Twitter user, I also see the limitations of communicating in those short phrases and sentences. We have to be ready to make our meaning known, and to let others explain themselves to us too, beyond the fragments we might draw from them for use on monuments, in Tweets, in newspapers, and in PowerPoint shows. Give depth of argument a chance, let the details back in. And if you quote me on this, make it a long quote!

Image: Glyn Lowe Productions, via Flickr, Creative Commons attribution license

Scrivener: A great writing tool

Scrivener authoring programFor a few months now, I’ve used the authoring software, Scrivener [available for Mac and Windows. I use the $40 Windows version] for writing fiction and non-fiction, whenever my task requires more than a short piece. The program has proven to be a terrific authoring tool. Let me tell you why.

Though the program came highly recommended by writers whose blog posts I read, at first, I was skeptical about it. Early advice as I began to learn to write fiction was, essentially, just get to the writing, don’t chase all sorts of tools for the work, just do it.

I tried it anyway. I started with a trial version, and quickly saw its advantages.

I started using it for fiction writing I was doing for a class. I was writing a short story with about five scenes in it. The program allowed me to build the story and its scenes as I cared to, dropping in and out of different parts while maintaining the ability to view and work on the whole story, if I liked. Some writers focus on word count, and I could keep close track of that, too.

Realizing Scrivener’s power and convenience, I then tried the program for building a transcribed collection of letters from 1906 and 07, and compiling the associated research and annotations for that work. Scrivener was terrific for that, allowing me to take each old letter from its an archive box and transcribe it, edit it, and chase down some of the details in the letter through research, and even collect images to publish with the letters. Putting the letters into their chronological order was a since.

For now, that collection of letters is part of a digital archive for my family, whose forebear wrote the letters. I am well set up, however, to turn the collection into a book manuscript.

I also used the program for client work for my business, setting up a complex and long report based on big forces of change shaping global society. Scrivener let me add and arrange sections at will, and work on ones I was ready to develop, as I saw fit.

Now I am also using Scrivener to write a novel, and the program’s ability to let me develop scenes and chapters, and to work on the ones I am ready to, when I am ready to, and to add detail, annotation, etc. to any and all parts, is a powerful and convenient feature.

Finally, in all these examples, the program has a great benefit to someone like me. I tend to want to perfect, refine, and decorate my written work, choosing fonts, aligning text, settign margins and line spacing, etc. before I’ve actually gotten the thing written. I can make MS Word jump through hoops–I am quite good at manipulating format in Word, but that’s a total distraction from the actual work of writing.

Scrivener strips away that distraction. It’s about the simple task of writing a body of prose–you fix it up visually, later. Getting things written with the bare bones font on screen is superb discipline for me. MS Word too easily lets me design a document before I’ve really written it.

I’ve not tested all the features of the program, and truth be told, I’ve not yet compiled a draft work for anyone other than a small group of writing colleagues in a class, or a draft report for my client project. I’ve yet to truly put a written peice of any large size to bed as a compiled work. But when I do, I’ve seen, I can choose the format for the given purpose: manuscript, magazine subscription, and so on. Those templates are part of the program. I look forward to taking things to the next step.


The proper use of a Nook or Kindle

Don’t pay a nickel for ebooks. Why? Because there are thousands and thousands of them available for free.

I am not talking about the various books that the new e-authors put out for free. There is no doubt talent among them, and some gems among their works available on the Internet. But wading through the less-worthy in that mass of new content is too much to take on.

No, instead, look at the great works of literature you can download and read for free. They include classical classics of the ancient sages like Aristotle and Virgil, and the greats of the enlightenment, like Hobbes and Kant, great American and British authors, poets, and humorists, and so on. The only big limitation: the works available free, are free because they are public domain if they were first published before 1923 or so.

Project Gutenberg has been digitizing books since about 1970, somehow anticipating that we’d want to read them on as-yet-un-invented devices. Their collection reaches to at least 36,000 titles. I find it easier to browse, search, and download that content via the easy-to-use site Manybooks.net which has much of the Project Gutenberg content in its collection.

Will you miss Stephen King and Suzanne Collins and other great current writers? Maybe so, but the tens of thousands of books you can get for free include remarkable stuff, some of which you always meant to read, or should have read, or were assigned to read in school but never really read.

Image: Jinx! via Flickr, Creative Commons attribution license

Reviving a focus on the Jazz Age

Because of work I am doing on a novel, I’ve dipped far into the beginnings of the Jazz Age. I’ve reread much of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, and found and played a lot of the music from the beginnings of Jazz and the Jazz Age. The music thrills me, and the social history of the period fascinates me. My fiction project is about those changing times, and it is rooted in the immediate pre-World War I time when Jazz had not quite emerged.

A new version of the Great Gatsby is due out soon on film. That and other forces conspire to refocus attention on the Jazz Age, and the flappers, if less so the music itself. The books and stories of the time are terrific, and hold plenty of insights for us today–difficult social change and the struggles we each face in life, social, emotional, economic–are as powerful to explore today through this fiction as it must have been when these works first got to print.

I note at least one new edition of Fitzgerald’s short Jazz Age fiction is coming out too: Tales of the Jazz Age. Looking forward to the revival!