October 30, 2012

Anonymous Magnetic Poetry, Harvested on Tuesday, Oct. 30

Students, WC consultants, and mischievous wind spirits have been observed moving word magnets on the Writing Center’s magnetic cabinets to create poems. Here are some of the tastiest of Monday’s harvest.


why incubate that stare you dress as knowledge

emerge the shadow of luscious power pictured

in global screams   smear a bitter symphony on

success   a robust hit

     do you feel frantic

          utilize eternity

                     I shot the boy in the black suit

I drool languidly

I please death

by worshipping life


all the men identify a suit above vision


copy delicate form not for profit






create a


a purple flood voids my fiddle

sun sings the garden apparatus

under crushing rain    read tiny life

Two of the poems took on shapes that were impossible to reproduce in word-processor text:

Note how the wordy, weighty corporate-lingo words appear to break the back of the sentence below them.

‘Nuff said.

October 30, 2012

Shelby’s Paper Plate Poem

Tuesday morning breakfast in the WC became an opportunity for poetry. Click photo to enlarge.

October 30, 2012

A Word: Why Do We Call Dollars ‘Dollars’?

Ah, the ubiquitous crumpled dollar—that small greenish rectangle of linen that purchases our chewing gum, under-tips the wait staff at restaurants, and refuses to be inserted into vending machines. But where does that word dollar actually come from?

Dollar, just like Dvorák, RENT, Pilsener, a lengthy pseudo-operatic rock song from the 1970s, and Ántonia Shimerda, comes to us from Bohemia, which is now part of the Czech Republic. In 1516, the town of Jáchymov, situated near the German border and called by the nearby Germans Joachimsthal (literally “Joachim’s valley”), a new silver mine opened. Three years later, Count Hieronymus Schlick, a nobleman wishing to extend his coolness even beyond being a Bohemian count named Hieronymous Schlick, decided to start minting his own money from the silver mined in Joachimsthal, and called his large coins Joachimsthalers. (Note that in German, ‘th’ is pronounced as a hard ‘t,’ and that the ‘a’ in Joachimsthalers is pronounced like ‘a’ in English ‘what.’) As this coin gained use throughout Bohemia and Germany, burghers chose to shorten this unwieldy name to just thaler, which became the currency in many German states until German unification under Otto von Bismarck, when the mark gained precedence. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the 16th century the thaler spread from High and Low German to Dutch, the language of the great sea-traders who spread their dalars all over the world, and from thence finally to England, where it was Anglicized into daler, daller, and finally dollar. Moral of the story: next time you go to buy a bag of Cheetos from the vending machine in the laundry room, thank Count Schlick for not naming his coins Hieronyms or Schlicks.

October 3, 2011

A Piece of Advice: Commas

Commas are a pain.  Many people learn to use them through rule-based teaching.  Unfortunately (in this case), adolescents tend to resist rules and to take exceptions as opportunities to cast doubt on the whole process.  A significant shift in perspective occurs when the young writer realizes the connection between the reading experience and the writing experience.  That realization requires several conditions to be in place: the writer’s confrontation with the physical and metaphysical reality of the reader, and the writer understanding that something beyond a grade is at stake (this is no longer “performance” or “practice”).

When those conditions are in place, the writer is ready to begin writing from her reader’s perspective.  That means always thinking about how the probable reader will react to each element of the construction.  How might the reader understand this thought, this word, this piece of punctuation?  The probable reader becomes an active interpreter of the rules.  Exceptions are understood to be necessary–useful in limiting meaning.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of why the “comma plus conjunction” rule exists:

I went to the store to buy bread and milk was on sale.

I have seen countless examples of this problem.  The countless examples were in college student writing (mostly first-year students).  Many of the writers who produced this type of confusion also demonstrated, in other places, that they knew the rule.  The errors tended to occur in places where the ideas being expressed were relatively simple (un-complex).  Such a situation suggests that when the writers were forced to pay attention to their constructions, they punctuated more effectively.  Punctuating effectively means reducing as much as possible the number of possible meanings any given expression can have.  Indeed, that can serve as a definition of “good writing” in general.  In the above example, as I read linearly, I read “milk” as an object of the action “buy.”  However, when I move to the next word, I am forced to read “milk” as a subject for the verb “was.”  At this point, I stop reading and become irritated.  Perhaps irrationally, I continue to be irritated at the writer long after I’ve made sense out of the sentence.  If I signal the reader that “milk” is only a subject, then all is good:

I went to the store to buy bread, and milk was on sale.

Then we have the exception:

I went to the store to buy bread and I ran into Joe.

This is pretty much the same grammatical structure.  The only difference is the use of “I” as the subject to the second clause.  The word “I” is the ultimate subject.  It will never be confused for an object.  The comma in the following sentence, then, is unnecessary:

I went to the store to buy bread, and I ran into Joe.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t useful.  The comma does provide some separation, some isolation, for each of the ideas within the sentence.  If that isolation is desired, then the comma should be used.

Mastery of the language is not achieved through chapter-and-verse knowledge of the rules.  Rather, mastery is achieved when the writer thinks through the effect of each word and punctuation choice, customizing the delivery so that confusion is minimized and intended information is maximized.

And how do you know the probable reader?  Get feedback on your writing.  Schedule an appointment with the Writing Center.

PS: I find it chortlesome that immediately below this wordpress post editing window, there is a link to “Request Feedback.”

September 29, 2011

One Writer’s Brain: Joshua Kehe

1. What was the most difficult writing situation you’ve had to deal with?

First semester of my Freshman year in college I had to write an annotated bibliography in Turabian for an Art History course. Having no idea what either an annotated bibliography or Turabian style was, I was a bit in over my head. To this day, I still have an unhealthy fear of Turabian. Slightly less fear for annotated bibliographies (this particular class had some extensive requirements for the annotations; so much so that I haven’t seen such requirements since), but it’s still there.

2. Do you write to learn, or do you only write to communicate with others?

I don’t think it’s possible to write without learning something about yourself. Writing is such a strange mix of conscious intentions and unconscious revelations blending together even as you pour the words out onto the page. I’ll start out writing something with certain thoughts in mind, and then halfway through I’ll look at it and think “Where did that come from?” It’s exciting when I can see what I truly think, feel, and believe rising up out of whatever detritus I initially found compelling.

3. If you could improve the world’s writers, what specific area would you address first?

Reading. Everybody needs to read. Constantly. This stretches from improving literacy rates in developing nations to encouraging people in the West to make time for books. Reading seems to have been regarded as an unnecessary luxury when compared with work, family, food, shelter, video games, and movies, but continued interest in the written word is essential to our development as both individuals and as a society.

Now, more in accordance with the question: Stephen King says, in his book On Writing, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that.”

That parenthetical statement is so key. I firmly believe that writing is best learned implicitly, absorbing the rules and idioms through our surroundings, rather than explicitly through grammar lessons. I’ll agree that grammar is necessary to learn, but it’s not where you start, and it’s also not where you go to deepen your knowledge of writing. Understanding the difference between a subject, a verb, and how they relate to one another does not show you the effects that placement can have upon the reader. It does not explain how you should construct a well-reasoned argument. It does not teach you how to evoke certain emotions or memories in the reader. Grammar is the skeleton of writing — dry and lifeless without the muscles of word choice, the nerves of a well-structured organization, and the heart of evocative imagery. These things you learn by reading.

4. What is a weakness you have as a writer?

Confidence in my own work. Almost every time I try to write something — whether for class, work, or my own pleasure — I spend almost as much time judging, critiquing, and worrying over my writing as I do actually writing. More often than not, the concern is unfounded. Sure, it’s bad on the first draft. That’s as it should be. But there’s always a solid foundation  there that usually excites me to continue working on the piece, making my earlier stress a bit pointless in the end. After all, that’s why we invented the second draft.

5. What question would you have liked us to ask you (about writing or reading)?

Nothing comes to mind.

September 28, 2011

Consultant Biography: Dave Leaton

Dave is the Director of the Truman state University Writing Center.  That is the most interesting thing anyone can say about him.  He was born long ago, before facebook, before Marxism came into fashion for the ninth time, before the internet, before laptops and desktops, before Light Beer from Miller, before the widespread consumption of turkey bacon, before Marxism fell out of fashion for the eighth time, before the Iran Hostage Crisis, before That 70s Show, before disco, before Phyllis and David York’s Tough Love, before Watergate, before Woodstock, before Armstrong skipped to my Luna–right around the time the War in Vietnam stopped being a “police action” and the beatnik identity was finally exhausted.

Dave is from Kansas (the good little bit north of Johnson County, south of the river, and east of everything else). Dave was educated successfully, despite periods of failure, such as the complete rejection of high school in 11th grade.

Dave enjoys doing cooking, cleaning, picking up after the kids, mowing the yard, doing laundry, and daydreaming about doing other things.  He is the occasionally proud father of twins (Dominic, after Steig’s dog, and Olivia, after the pig), but is increasingly channeling his inner Red Forman.

Dave enjoys books by William Steig, China Mieville, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula K. LeGuin, Isaac Asimov, J.R.R. Tolkien, Philip K. Dick, Richard Russo, Neal Stephenson, ok, fine, this is going to take forever–I enjoy hundreds, perhaps thousands of authors, and I eagerly await additions.

September 28, 2011

News of the World

Title: “Quixote, Colbert, and the Reality of Fiction.” Author: William Egginton – Source: NY Times – 9/25/2011

Every so often, a defense of the humanities becomes necessary (the frequency seems to be increasing).  This is such a defense, and a defense of fiction as an epistemology in particular.  Egginton makes a good case for narratives providing the basis of all human understandings of ‘reality’.  A key quote:

Cervantes is not parodying the tales of chivalry but rather the inability to suspend the judgment of truth and falsity that reduces all narrative to one standard.

Fiction forces us to suspend not simply belief in the physical presence of the world but also our beliefs about relations–our historical and ethical understandings.  Fiction forces a dialectical mode of thought, and that, in turn, encourages critical thinking as a regular, working mode of thought.

Article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/quixote-colbert-and-the-reality-of-fiction/

September 27, 2011

Life as a spiraling force, movin’ through the universe . . .

. . . unencumbered by modular time concepts.

This is the first post.  It was forged by the Dark Lord Dave.  It serves as a replacement for that “Hello World” thing.  This particular component of the periphery is the “Consultant Blog” or “cBlog.”  This should be used for writing-related posts by consultants.  Please, someone, write another post and categorize it under cBlog.  Don’t make it too good, or else no one will want to follow it.