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Thai Thoughts and Anecdotes Part 270

  • Written by Dana
  • January 1st, 2011
  • 8 min read


Greetings Stickmanites and Dana Fans:

Today is Thai Thoughts and Anecdotes — Part 270. I vaguely remember way back in the mists of ancient Stickmanbangkok time retiring at #77 and now I am up to 270. I don't know if it is too much medication or not enough medication. Oh well, enjoy. The following literary musing includes the words skanks, snots, heroin, addicts, and Devil. Try to find that in the New York Times Book Review section!

So, what do I do when I am not in the Kingdom clattering down the marble steps of Pattaya's A.A. Hotel on Soi 13/0 at 7:30 in the morning? I cruise libraries. I'm a library hound. The Boston Public Library can bring in books about Thailand from all over the United States through their reciprocal agreements with hundreds of other libraries. The program is called the Inter-Library Loan Program (ILLP). It's a free, efficient, and fantastic program. The only restrictions are they won't take requests on books from Alaska and Hawaii (shipping costs), and they discourage requests on books held at the Harvard University Library (bunch of snots). Anyway, the other day, just cruising the stacks, I grabbed a book on writing. Here is my report titled:

WE ARE NOT DOING SO WELL IN AMERICA EITHER

I'm in the West End branch of the Boston Public Library just cruising. I want to take something home but I don't want to spend too much time looking. There is an oboe and piano concert with free food in the Community Room and I want to check that out.

I grab On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction (30th anniversary edition) by William Zinsser. Later that night I am reclining on the bed and idly thumbing through the pages. I come across (p.99):

"The important distinction is between good writing and bad writing. Good writing is good writing, whatever form it takes and whatever we call it."

Really? Sounds like David Koresh preaching to the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. So, help me out here author William Zinsser, what is the 'distinction' you are talking about? Any clues for the readers of your book? And I hate to be a crank reader, but when is the last time you looked up the words good and bad in the dictionary? How about skillful writing instead of good writing? The title of your book is On Writing Well. What happened to On Writing Good?

The dictionary? Good is not such a problem when used alone, but good as a part of good and bad? Now we have a problem. Words are not about personally ascribed saintly virtues or evil thoughts and deeds. Attaching moral imperatives to words is not skillful writing Mr. Zinsser. This is how the uneducated think and speak and write. I question your credentials. Although examples can be found whereby common usage of 'good' and 'bad' words and 'good' and 'bad' writing is accepted–it should not be the behavior of someone advising others on how to write.

Sigh. I put the book down. Maybe because I am an author who 'publishes' on the Internet I lack the brains for this kind of advice on how to write good writing good, in like, you know, a good way.

An hour later, I pick up the book again and the pages fall open to p.37 which starts with:

"All this talk about good words and bad words . . . "

Sigh. I put the book down again.

In the middle of the night I switch on the light and pick up the book. On p.34 Mr. Zinsser says:

"Also get in the habit of using dictionaries." Good idea.

1. Why don't you start by looking up the words good and bad.
2. Give some thought to the fact that you started a new paragraph with 'Also'.
3. Try using the word into for in. Example: 'Also get into the habit . . . '

I put the book down again and shut off the light.

When the morning comes I pick up the book again. In a chapter called Bits & Pieces Mr. Zinsser talks about punctuation: the period, the exclamation point, the semi-colon, the dash, the colon, and the period. No mention made of commas and no listing for comma in the Index. Commas are commonly overused and misused. I am reminded of William Safire's incisive and interesting and funny book on language and writing entitled Quoth The Raven in which he has eight page references to commas. As of 1993 he had published ten similar books. Giddy and presumptive multiplication presents us with a possible eighty page references on commas.

Mr. Zinsser, who is offering a 'what-to-do' and a 'what-not-to-do' writing manual has nothing to say about commas. I put the book down. I don't trust him as my teacher. Anyone want to take bets on his saying negative things about so-called writers 'publishing' on the Internet? But I almost digress. Here is a comma example from a book by a professional author (got paid to write) named Liz Smith in her memoir titled Natural Blonde–

"As for Ivana, I liked her, too, but never knew what she was saying."

That's ok Liz–I have no idea what you are doing with commas either.

more on commas . . .

"From my point of view, however, Greenland is the ideal objective, combining remoteness, difficulty of access, the grandest scenery, an inexhaustible number of mountainous fjords each with its own character, and on the whole a region still sufficiently unfrequented for a man in a small boat to feel very remotely akin to the early seamen-explorers and to their successors the old whaling men from Hull, Leith, Dundee; and should he chance to find himself in difficulties among ice, to share in a much milder way their harsh experiences."

from Triumph and Tribulation by H.W. Tilman

At the time of this writing H.W. Tilman was a living legend. Living legends get away with stuff when they submit manuscripts. Immoderate use of commas to punctuate, even when technically correct, is not laziness so much as it is ignorance. The above passage is marginally ok, but comma usage like this is a punctuation gateway drug to more and more commas, run-on sentences, and probably heroin usage. In the Dana lexicon of proofing/editing this is known as 'shotgunning commas'. The writer fills up a page with text and then fires a shotgun shell full of commas at the page. No semi-colons or colons or hyphens or maybe a capital letter to start a new sentence–just commas. This is so common that many readers accept this as skillful or appropriate punctuation.

I know of a respected and prolific Thai-farang genre Internet writer who loves commas and who loves run-on sentences; a literary combo similar to picking up two skanks at once on the Pattaya boardwalk. Fun but risky–people will talk. Not sure about him and heroin. I respect the Internet protocols of confidentiality too much to reveal his name but I have broached the subjects of too many commas and too many run-on sentences with this unnamed author and it is like staring into the eyes of the Devil–no progress is possible. Writers are often like happy addicts. It can be difficult to get them to try a different vein.

Anyway, I wonder what the results would be if the graduate level advanced creative writing students in colleges and universities were asked to produce eight hundred words of story or essay with no sentence having more than one comma. Hopefully, more time spent considering declarative sentences, direct objects, and comma editing.

So let us review:

1. "The important distinction is between good writing and bad writing. Good writing is good writing, whatever form it takes and whatever we call it." Attention: Mr. Zinsser–this is not skillful writing.

2. I think I'll just keep on being me and keep on writing for and publishing on the Internet. I'm pretty comfortable with that. Some of the poor writing by 'published writers' seems to almost suck the life force right out of me. Examples: Thai-farang novels. I have developed the scientific opinion that excellence in novel writing can be measured by administering the bathtub-at-the-Nana Hotel test. In other words: if I start out reading the farang written Thai content novel titled Pet from Phuket in the bathtub and wake up later with the book floating in the water; the writing was not idiosyncratic, hilarious, original, narrative interesting, character riveting, or wordsmithing skilled enough. The book put me to sleep and that is not the reason I purchased the book at Bookazine. Somebody got my money, and somebody received a royalty; but when I woke up, the novel was floating in the water. I'm talkin' science here folks.

3. And, just an idea here: the next time you decide to denigrate the Thais for substandard reading and writing skills remember Mr. Zinsser and his book entitled: On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. We are not doing so well in America either.


Stickman's thoughts:

You opened the wrong book in the library. There is absolutely no need for you to learn about writing – you've proven yourself to be a most accomplished writer already and have a big fan base!