Friday, July 11, 2008

Stand Up Comedy and the Art of Fine Writing

I took a class in Stand-Up Comedy because I thought my writing needed more humor. I was right about that, but I am not sure that the class itself helped with the humor.

On the other hand, I learned a lot.

One of the things that struck me as interesting was that I followed the instructor’s instructions to the letter. He commented about that -- because no one else did. (This was an adult education class, no grades.) I told him simply, "I am paying you to teach me something, I would be very stupid not to follow your instructions."

In my not-so-humble opinion, I had the best routine in the class. Every time I have done it, the audience has laughed. I couldn't get a better grade than that.

Why didn’t the others follow the instructions? Once again, I don’t know. My best guess is that they were there to validate their experiences, not to learn stand-up. Or they thought they knew more than the instructor did. Or they hadn’t listened to enough stand-up routines to understand the instructions. Or any combination of the above.

The parallel with the writers critique groups is that even if someone who knows what they are talking about tells them what to do, the members don’t listen. For pretty much the same reasons that the stand-up comedy students didn’t. I know that it is difficult to sort out the people who do know what needs to be done from those who don’t. But still --

I keep telling myself to shut up; I am wasting my time because even if I do know what I am talking about, the people in the groups have no way of knowing. I am only slightly published, nothing really worth mentioning -- outside of college periodicals. But I am not telling them anything that they can’t read for themselves in books that go beyond "don’t use helping verbs." Whether or not they use helping verbs, they won’t ever be good writers if they don’t learn a few facts about stories and storytelling.

There are plenty of books on story telling. See my list for a few to start with.

So why do I keep on going to critique groups? Well, they are nice people to hang out with, interested in some things that I am. So I keep going.

But if I like them -- and I do—I really want to help them succeed.

Frustration strikes again.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Helping verbs

Somewhere along the line, some members of writing groups have gotten the idea that it is wrong to use the progressive and perfect tenses. The ones with “helping verbs.” I have been reading all kinds of “how to” books on writing with style. So far I have been unable to track down this piece of misinformation, but I’m not giving up. I am going to find the charlatan who started this nonsense and expose him or her.

I can tell, though, which writers have bought this crazy idea.

You have seen the kind of amateur stage production where the actors stand around on stage with their hands metaphorically in their pockets waiting to deliver lines. When they get a cue they spring into action and deliver their lines with great feeling. Then they stick their hands back in their pockets and freeze -- waiting for their next line.

The characters in the prose of writers who have bought into the no-helping-verbs propaganda are like these amateur stage actors standing around waiting for their lines. They are never doing anything; they are never interrupted; they are just there – waiting for their cue.

One of my favorite nursery rhymes reads:

When I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives
Each wife had seven sacks
In each sack were seven cats
Each cat had seven kits
Kits, cats, bags and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?

This riddle was supposedly found scratched into a wall in the pyramids. That‘s how old it is.

Of course, you know the answer, one.

Now let us removing those all important “helping verbs” and make the verbs “stronger.” (You have also heard that removing them makes the verbs more active, less passive. I am not going there.)

When I went to St. Ives
I met a man with seven wives
Each wife had seven sacks
In each sack were seven cats
Each cat had seven kits
Kits, cats, bags and wives,
How many went to St.Ives?

The answer: I have no idea.

You see, I went to St. Ives.

There I was standing in the middle of the town square, perhaps looking over the gimcracks in the market, when this man grabs my sleeve and whispers, “Want a cat? I’ve got plenty of them.”

I turn around intrigued or dismayed or whatever, and he points, “See my seven wives over there, each one has seven sacks full of cats, just full of seven cats, every one of them has kittens, seven each. Please take some of these cats. I’ll give them to you.”

By now tears are running down his cheeks.

And my eyes are getting a little watery, too. “My wives, they can’t turn away a cat…”

You get the picture. How many of them went to St. Ives? Maybe all of them -- all 2,744 cats, plus the 49 sacks, plus the man and his seven wives, for a grand total of 2,801. Oh, I forgot, plus me, of course, 2,802. Or maybe the man and his wives were born in St.Ives. But in that case, I am quite sure that not all the cats were born in St. Ives.

I envision cats from all over the surrounding territory saying to one another, “You know if you are kicked out, there is a place over in St. Ives…”

I don’t know the answer to the riddle, how many went to St.Ives, if I don’t tell the story using helping verbs.

In poetry and, as I am beginning to discover, in fiction every word needs to count. Look how much bang for your buck you get using helping verbs. You get action; you get the cook interrupted in the middle of frying bacon by the stampede; you get that beloved of writers -- backstory; you get character development; you get so much packed into that little tiny word, that helping verb; you are shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t use it. Make it count for you.

Plus, when I am reading and find that the writer has used a simple verb when a progressive or perfect is correct, I notice. Don’t think those first readers at the publishers who graduated from some Ivy League college with a major in English Lit. don’t notice when you use the wrong verb. They do. They don’t think, “Wow! This writer knows how to write action.” They are much more likely to think, “This guy doesn’t know how to write proper English.” They know grammar. They expect the writer to be able to write a grammatical English sentence.

Besides most of the writers I knew have bigger problems, problems that won’t be solved by whether or not they use helping verbs.