a writing tool + re: make them reject you
I stayed up late last night (past midnight). I didn't have trouble sleeping, but my writing brain started to buzz around half past eleven. I wish it wouldn't do that; I would much rather it get started at eight in the morning or mid-afternoon, times that don't interrupt my circadian rhythm. Regardless, when it does strike I have no choice but to listen attentively, pen and pad in hand. Hence my staying up past my usual bedtime and being able to write this wordvomit in the morning.
I cleaned up my room this weekend and my nightstand is already covered again. Two fountain pens. Two legal pads. Roy Peter Clark's Writing Tools in paperback. Verlyn Klinkenborg's Several Short Sentences About Writing in hardcover. My Kindle in its tattered case. I immersed myself in Stephanie Foo's memoir What My Bones Know last night, looking for examples of good dialogue. As it turns out, good dialogue can contain plenty of dialogue tags that are not 'said' (whispered, yelled, etc). (By the way, so far her memoir has been gripping. I can't put it down.)
When I cosplay as a writer like this (and since I was reading about Stephanie studying journalism in college) I often find myself wondering what my life would be like now if I had studied something like English (or even journalism). There are certainly parts of the journey I think I would enjoy, but I never end up with serious regrets. I love poring over the positions of nouns and verbs and writing about what I find, but if I had to do this for a living or a grade, I'm not sure I'd enjoy it nearly as much. And I guess therein lies the crux of my career crisis: I'm terrified to do things I enjoy for a living because I don't want obligation to ruin my love for them, yet I can't stand the dreariness of doing something I don't enjoy (at least not for long, anyway). This seems awfully reductionistic though. Do I have to frame it as a choice between two extremes? Can't I find something I don't care terribly for but wouldn't mind doing long-term? Or something I like doing that won't get crushed by pressure?
Here's an exercise I highlighted from Several Short Sentences About Writing:
Here’s another way to make your prose look less familiar.
Turn every sentence into its own paragraph.
(Hit Return after every period. If writing by hand, begin each new sentence at the left margin.)
A sudden, graphic display of the length of your sentences
And, better yet, their relative length—how it varies, or doesn’t vary, from one to the next.
Variation is the life of prose, in length and in structure.
Having all your sentences in a column, one above the other, makes them easier to examine.
Suddenly you see similarities in shape.
You notice, for instance, how your sentences cling to each other
Instead of accepting their separateness.
And you can begin to ask questions—simple ones—that will help you understand how to revise
And make better sentences.
How many sentences begin with the subject?
How many begin with an opening phrase before the subject?
Or with a word like "When" or "Since" or "While" or "Because"?
How many begin with "There" or "It"?
What kinds of nouns do you see?
Multisyllabic Latinate nouns ending in "-ion"?
Or are they the solid names of actual things?
Is the subject of the sentence an actor capable of performing the action of the verb?
Can you adjust the sentence so it is?
Or does the subject of the sentence hide the action of entities that are able to act—humans, for instance?
How close is the subject to its verb?
Are they separated by an inserted phrase?
What does that do to the velocity of the sentence?
How many of the verbs are variants of "to be"—"is," "are," "were," "was," and so on?
Are the verbs active, energetic?
Or do they merely connect or arrange or present or relate?
Are the constructions passive?
How often does the word "as" appear, and in which of its many senses?
Are you using "with" as a preposition or as a false conjunction, a false relative pronoun?
Are there inadvertent repetitions—words repeated unintentionally?
Is every phrase in its proper place, every word?
Is everything next to what it should be next to?
Anything outright ungrammatical?
Words used improperly?
Do verbs that require direct objects (transitive verbs) lack them?
If there’s a modifying phrase at the start of the sentence, does it modify the subject of the sentence? (It must.)
Can the sentence be broken in two or three?
You know when a blog post finds you at exactly the right time in your life? Make Them Reject You was that for me today. A big reason I struggle to find jobs to apply for is because I don't meet the minimum qualifications for the vast majority of open positions I come across. Why should I let that stop me from applying? A bunch of these "Entry level" postings ask for five or ten years of experience. Moving forward I'm going to apply to all of these entry level positions regardless of if I have the qualifications or not. As Matthew writes,
What can you do about it? Apply for the job anyway, even if you don’t think you’re qualified. Why are you even making that judgment on somebody else’s behalf? It is not your responsibility to determine if you are qualified for a job. That is the hiring manager’s problem, or the recruiter’s, and what in Satan’s holy name have they done for you that you’re willing to limit yourself by making their jobs easier?
These people don’t know you from Adam or Lilith. They’re not your friends. You don’t owe them a godforsaken thing. Make them reject you.
Thanks, Matthew. I really needed to hear that.