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Writing

On Father’s Day

Father’s Day and my father’s birthday are exactly a week apart. When I was a smart-ass child, I gave my father a right-handed gardening glove on Father’s Day and its left-handed companion on his birthday. I thought I was hilarious; he was not amused.

My father died a few days before Father’s Day when I was 24 and he was days from turning 75. For years after that, I would get sullen and gloomy in June, prone to talking too much about my father and crying. I hated Father’s Day for its mindless gender assumptions (Dad grills! Dad drinks whiskey! Dad plays golf!) and for the grief it caused me.

As more time has passed, Father’s Day does not cause me acute pain. I still get mad at the gender assumptions, but the rest has faded into a dull ache. One of the things that helps is that my friends have become fathers, and it makes me happy to see them celebrated.

On this Father’s Day, I am writing about William and George Bond. This father-and-son team were the first two directors of the Harvard Observatory, working in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. George’s sister-in-law wrote the following about watching them work:

“One observer, with a sharp pencil, traced the [sun] spots as they were reflected on the paper, while the other wrote down any notes or observations . . . it was fascinating to watch the certainty and accuracy of every touch, their enthusiasm and delight in the work, and the quick response and recognition of either to a remark or suggestion of the other.”

George Bond was a single father late in his (short) life. He let his two daughters play in his office when he was working as long as they didn’t fight. One daughter described him as the kind of man who would walk around a child’s game of marbles on the sidewalk, rather than one of his colleagues, who would walk right through the game.

Like my own father, he taught his girls constellations and bird calls. Unlike my father, he died in his 40s from TB, exacerbated by cold and drafty working conditions in the observatory.

This post is in honor of good fathers, wherever we may find them.

 

(photo credit: https://hea-www.harvard.edu/~fine/Observatory/all.html)

 

Editing

A Meteoric Rise

In the seventh century BCE, Greeks thought that the weather was linked to the motion of the planets and stars. The word “meteor” was used to describe anything that happened high up in the atmosphere, and included what we would now call astronomical phenomena as well as weather- and atmosphere-related events. Thus the field of study the atmosphere and its patterns became called meteorology.

My first editing job was at the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences (or JAS as we affectionately called it). I became fond of JAS and my job copyediting meteorology. I liked to joke that the technical editor and I were the only ones who read JAS from cover to cover, and it was totally wasted on me.

My job editing meteorology eventually lead me to a second and third scientific editing position. Today I edit articles from a variety of scientific disciplines for the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. I still find myself drawn to the physical sciences, geology, meteorology, physics, and astronomy. Chemistry and I have a bit of an estranged relationship going back to the eleventh grade, but that is another story.

My robust English major/writer background and my puny (yet punny) science background leads to a lot of humor on my end as I try to make it through the my day. Yesterday I was amused by the fact that my authors were talking about a “meteoric rise” of methane concentrations in the atmosphere. It wasn’t until my second pass that I saw that it was a meteorological pun. This fact, I am sure, escaped my authors.

How do you amuse yourself at work?

(PS Keep your eye out for the Perseid meteor shower on August 11. Photo from JPL/NASA)

 

Talking about Writing

Elevator Speech

In theory, a writing residency is a good place to work on one’s elevator speech, because everyone asks everyone else what they write. Usually I say, “I’m working on a nonfiction project.” But then they follow up, “Oh! What’s it about?” Then I flounder.

“It’s a book about trying to understand my father’s work after he died.” If you know me in person, then you know he died when I was in my twenties. You know that he was an astronomer. And you know that I copyedit science but know very little about it. “Cool!” you might say and go on with your day, understanding what my book is about.

But if you don’t know me, I have a lot more to communicate. “I’m writing a book about trying to understand my father’s work after he died. He was an astronomer and I’m your classic English major type.” That gives you more context. But then I’m tempted to talk about C. P. Snow.

“In the late 1950s, physicist and novelist C. P. Snow talked about the two cultures: the scientists and the literary intellectuals, as he called them. The scientists read books and went to plays, but the literary types did not know the second law of thermodynamics was, which is the scientific equivalent of not having read a Shakespeare play. I don’t know the second law of thermodynamics.” Oops, too much information and it doesn’t even begin to cover the part of the book that is about my mother.

“My mother was a pianist, and my father was an astronomer. My book is about being the living embodiment of the third culture” only works if I have already given you the two cultures spiel. And I’m likely to do something undignified following it, such as saying, “Woohoo! Third Culture!”

This is why marketing people should write the one-sentence version of manuscripts and I should just go back to writing the manuscript. I manage to keep my dignity intact—mostly—on the page. How’s your elevator speech?

 

 

Reading

Between the World and Me

Booksellers are notorious (in indie bookselling circles) for not reading popular books. They are the original hipsters and prefer to buy (at a steep discount) their books without the movie cover, thank you very much. In that spirit, it took me a while to get to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Better late than never. I’ve read a ton of Coates’ articles in The Atlantic and have always loved his precise writing, and the way that he always claims the shades of what he knows and what he doesn’t know. This is the clarity I want for my students. I spent much of a rainy Memorial Day tucked away reading his book.

I’m about halfway through now, but one of the things that struck me the most was the way that he talks about craft. I was not surprised to see in the beginning his clean layout of how the United States is based on the profits and plunder of slave labor while it claims unthinking exceptionalism. This is what I expected from the book.

But I also love how Coates talks about writing. He echoes Orwell as he talks about how the American Dream (which he sees as unaccessible to many), “thrives on generalization. . . on privileging immediate thinking, and honest writing” (50). Yes! The unthinking cliche is the enemy of good thought and thus good writing. Coates also sees “the craft of writing as the craft of thinking . . . . I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately . . . a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations” (51). Amen.

What are you reading? What are you learning about your own writing?

Writing

Goldstein’s Lecture on Subject Cliches

 

Most people with a shred of critical thinking skills and writing experience can recognize a cliche. Generic, trite, overused phrases such as every cloud has its silver lining or time will tell are cliches. But there are other kinds of cliches.

Every professor will hold her head and groan at the following academic cliches: Since the beginning of time, throughout history, in today’s society, because of technology. These phrases are overused and not specific enough to communicate meaning. Students everywhere, please banish these phrases from your vocabulary. Thank you.

Last night at work, a few seasoned tutors were reading a poem as part of one tutor’s writing project. It was a descriptive poem, and did not really bring anything new to the subject.

“Looks like someone needs a Goldstein lecture on subject cliches!” my colleague said. And he was right.

Subject cliches are words that are not generally considered cliches, but become so when applied to a subject. For example, bright as the sun is a solar cliche; cozy is a village cliche; tragedy is a death cliche; and apple pie is a mom cliche (but not for my mom, who really did make the best apple pie in the world, haha).

I once heard a poet describe the sun as yellow as a tulip. Think of the creative opportunities that could replace this subject cliche. The sun is a yellow dwarf star fueled by  hydrogen fusion. It contains hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon, and iron. What color is helium? There are a thousand directions a poet armed with the Internet and a love of words can go.

A cliche is an opportunity to go into more detail. I say this frequently as a teacher, tutor, and editor. In fact it has become my very own cliche. I guess I should be proud.

(Photo credit: By Hinode JAXA/NASA – http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/solar-b/solar_017.html)

 

Reading Poetry Out Loud

Poet Christmas

It’s poet Christmas this week in Salem, Mass.—something even this secular Jew can get behind. The Massachusetts Poetry Festival goes on for three days and offers workshops, readings, a small press fair, and a poetry circus.

You can find me at the Hawthorne Hotel library on Sunday afternoon  (1:00) presenting “The Language of the Unknown”: The Interplay of Poetry and Science with my poet-friends Rosemary Starace and Heather Hughes.

My first real work in grad school was writing poems about star myths as a way to process the death of my father, who was an astronomer. Eventually I ran out of myths and began writing about the stars themselves. Next thing I knew, I was trolling the website IFLScience in order to find ideas for poems. Poets always need new material, and I wasn’t in the mood to embark on a scandalous affair just to have something to write about.

What have I learned about science or poetry as tools of observation? How do you write about science without confusing the former English majors? What rhymes with paleontology? Why is Heather Hughes obsessed by birds? Come find out. It’ll be fun.

 

Reading Poetry Out Loud

On Being Part of the Problem

I went to a poetry event the other week where multiple poets read. I went to hear one poet in particular, but because I tend to be disgracefully early to things (I blame my father), I heard the end of a talk on publishing.

I was only half listening, but when someone asked a question about diversity in publishing, I started paying attention. There were two white late-middle-age publishers on the stage and a younger white publisher. I knew two of them slightly and respect their work.

However their answers were unsatisfactory. “I publish the best poems I receive,” says one.

“Well, unless they have an obviously ethnic name, I don’t even know the race of the poets,” said another.

“[My press] does not discriminate on the basis of anything, nationality, or uh,” stumbled the third. I don’t think they even knew what the problem was.

I looked around the room. The majority of the people were late-middle-age and white. There were a few people of color, a few older people, and a few people under 40.

What the well-meaning publishers were missing, I think, is the acknowledgment of the institutional racism. If you don’t see people who write like you or look like you contributing to a magazine, you are not likely to submit there. It didn’t occur to them that they could reach out to underrepresented poets whose work they liked. They seemed comfortable with what they were doing so far.

I listened to the poet I came to see (who was good) and a few of the poets that followed. But after a while, dissatisfied, I slipped out of the room. Not too much later, I stumbled across a different group of poets.

Louder than a Bomb is a youth poetry project. Students from all over the Boston area, neighborhoods far from shiny Cambridge and gentrified Somerville, came together to read poems. These poems were not free-floating superficial description. Sure there were lines played for a laugh, but they were about life and death, racism, and misunderstanding. They were about hope and opportunity.

There was not one cheap joke about being gluten-free.

The fact that these two groups were presenting in the same library without any apparent knowledge of each other is part of what is wrong with the poetry world. My own poetry fits into the more formal page-bound model. But it did my brain, creativity, and spirit good to hear these kids doing their presentation-based poems. And it’s all good for my writing.

I need to get out more.