In Defense of Semi-Colons and Other Ornaments

Activity Being Avoided: Life. I’m campaigning for aestivation.
Music In My Head: Cowboy Romance – Natalie Merchant
Tea Being Drunk: cold mint tea with a little lemon
Books Being Read: Margery Kempe – Robert Gluck, Ragged Company – Richard Wagamese

I found this: On Semicolons and the Rules of Writing

My initial reaction to Kurt Vonnegut’s quote is “What an arrogant little…”. Those of you who have read this blog know that I’m in favour of pretty things like semi-colons and em dashes, and I only despise the clutter of serial commas because they encourage reading without thinking. You’ll also know that I believe a competent writer should be able to work within the full pyjama-tuxedo range.

Yes, one should be able to write a simple Vonnegut sentence, sans semi-colon. One should also be able to flutter Virginia Woolf’s heart with cleaved clauses.

A Vonnegut sentence (from Slaughterhouse Five–and please ignore the modifier problem): “Billy sat up in bed. He had no idea what year it was or what planet he was on. Whatever the planet’s name was, it was cold.”

A Woolf sentence (from A Room of One’s Own): “The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like, or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them, or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light.”

Now, it’s not easy to write au Vonnegut. As with anything else, simple writing requires attention and practise. It’s even more difficult, however, to write a complicated sentence, to learn to use punctuation–no, to wield it as a chef’s knife–to create the lily and gild it.

Why bother? Why not keep it simple?

Humans don’t always like simple. We like art; we like pretty things; we laud the complex and ornate. While we might take a calming breath in the face of Japanese minimalism, the Sistine chapel receives gasps of admiration.

Each person should have the choice of eliciting breaths or gasps.

If we’re going to force “education” down every callow gullet, there should be a broad purpose to it. There is no purpose to analysing Shakespeare; there is great purpose to being a competent writer. If we spent less time analysing literature and more time honing writing styles, communication would become the most important thing in our society. With communication comes learning and understanding. With communication comes coherence.

We can’t all be the same, but we can learn to communicate with each other. We can also make our existence pretty–because there’s nothing wrong with something being embellished.



Dear Fellow White People: TRC Teaching

My provincial government is a bunch of jerks. (Click here for details.)

Now, I work with students who don’t really like to read, but here’s my (unofficial, completely unsupervised) TRC curriculum:

For starters (non-threatening graphic novels for those who don’t read “school books”):

Short stories:

Novels (for speculative fiction fans, sports fans and feminists, respectively):

Play (just one, because my students don’t like plays but they like Emily):

Poetry (the first one is very popular with the science crowd):



One or More Percent Tolerance

I’m self-employed; I work alone, usually one-on-one with clients. I do have a set of guidelines I give to prospective clients, but I must say that I do not have any hard-and-fast rules.

In my line of work, there’s no “zero tolerance”.

I first heard that term during the brief period my children were in elementary school (before I started homeschooling them). At the time, it was “zero tolerance for violence”. Any student who participated in any sort of violence was suspended from school. Naturally, it didn’t take long for even the Grade 1 students to discover that one thrown chair could get you anywhere up to a week at home. My wee little darling, who was frustratingly active but not inclined to violence, was discovered by his (rational) teacher whilst in the planning stages of a group suspension. He and his cohorts thought it would be great to get out of school. We had to have a little chat about the consequences of actions and exactly how much fun a week in the company of his livid mother would be.

When I was in my early 20s, when the world was black and white, I probably would have agreed with the concept of zero tolerance. By the time I was in my late-20s, the world was starting to get rather grey around the edges. Now, all I see are variants of grey.

Thus, I have “guidelines” rather than “rules”. (Think Pirates of the Caribbean; include the eye-role, if you like.)

My guidelines are designed to protect me but, as a human, I find I need only so much protection. I bounce back from most insults and injuries. Sure, I’ll drop a client if they cancel too often, but if the cancellation involves family catastrophes, the sudden death of both grandparents always trumps anything involving me. I really don’t like being kicked, but if the child is kicking me because that’s the only way they can communicate–and I’ve been hired to teach them to communicate in more effective ways–then zero tolerance begets failure for everyone. 

My other problem with the phrase is that it makes people feel too comfortable. They trust the words and distance themselves from the nitty-gritties of a particular situation, and then everything falls apart when the grey areas show up. Most often, those grey areas are people. They are individuals with faces and names, and they don’t fit into the box for whatever reason.

Frequently, the grey areas surround the powerful people who have instituted the zero-tolerance policy and feel it doesn’t actually apply to them. (They are, after all, “good people” who have instituted a zero-tolerance policy.) As well, if zero tolerance is applied to a behaviour one wants to end, said behaviour merely goes underground until it becomes tolerated again. (See thousands of attempts across history and cultures to ban birth control, alcohol, drugs, sex work, etc.) This leaves the powerful sanctimonious and the vulnerable at risk.

Now’s the time to have a large swig of your tea. Gird your loins: I’m about to suggest an appropriate use of numbers. This is math, people. Math.

Let’s use any other positive integer than zero. For situations that might hurt another person, we can start small–1% or 2% tolerance–and see if that achieves the desired effect. That way, teenagers in a consensual sexual relationship won’t end up on the (bloody stupid) sex offender registry, but people won’t have to put up with being sexually assaulted. In other situations, where the only risk is to the individual, we could up it to, say, 99% tolerance… and we might learn something new.

It’s a different plant, but it’s still a nice plant.


Holy Literary Quartet

An announcement:

I have found a writer who is, as of this writing, infallible. She is sufficiently infallible that The Holy Literary Trinity has now been up graded to a quartet.

This newest deity is Sara Baume.








Baume is a master at writing sentences that make me stop and re-read them–sentences that make my insides feel all warm and happy.

Samples from the beginning of each book:

  • I’m on my way to purchase a box-load of incandescent bulbs because I can’t bear the dimness of the energy savers, how they hesitate at first and then build to a parasitic humming so soft it hoaxes me into thinking some part of my inner ear has cracked, or some vital vessel of my frontal lobe. (Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither)
  • The white strata are bunching into clouds. The bunches are competing with each other to imitate animals. A sheep, a platypus, a sheep, a tortoise. A sheep, a sheep, a sheep. (A Line Made by Walking)

She doesn’t lose control throughout the books. Right to the end of both, I had to stop to admire the writing style. There are no flat characters. There is nothing to suggest that the book has been edited for common consumers.

There is only good writing.

Ms. Baume, allow me to add this reminder that your new status doesn’t demand infinite infallibility. I permit my divine beings one literary catastrophe each, so don’t feel you’re under too much pressure. I am a compassionate devotee.

Salmacis’ Press: Books Available Here

Dear Regular Readers (of this irregular blog),

You need more short stories in your life. I recommend these:




the author

Let’s Have a Chat About Accessibility and Being Hard of Hearing

I went to a poetry reading on Saturday night. It was at The FOLD, which seems to pride itself on accessibility–‘cepting it wasn’t accessible for me. Two of the four presenters didn’t use the microphone that was right beside them.

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a few years know that this seems to be a poetic problem

If you want me to pay you for your art, I need to be able to take part in it.

There’s not a lot about accessibility for hard-of-hearing people (though apparently one-quarter of the population has some type of hearing loss). Here are my suggestions for HoH accessibility:

1. Always use a microphone.

OU TUNT BEE I CA UH-UR-TAH OO. (Loud doesn’t mean I can understand you.) The microphone consistently makes all the sounds louder, which means I can pick up more consonants. Make it a good microphone, too. Static and blaring make things unintelligible.

2. Make sure you have decent speakers hooked up to said microphone.

Squawking and fuzzing aren’t good here, either.

3. Light the presenter’s face.

Lipreading doesn’t work well in mood lighting.

Lipreading, though, has drawbacks: B and M look the same; F and V look the same. Accents really mess with lipreading.  Shouting, emphasis and extreme emotion also contort lips. For most people in most situations, lipreading is only half a language.

4. Offer closed-captioned videos or print-outs of the reading.

ASL is nice, but not everyone is fluent in ASL. People who don’t use it regularly might be good enough to have a conversation, but poetic language is probably beyond them.

5. If you can’t make your event accessible for me, just let me know.

I don’t expect everyone to accommodate my ears. People who don’t speak English wouldn’t expect you to translate the whole programme into their language.

Just don’t lie to me and take my money.

For communication tips, read the Canadian Hearing Society’s page.



Reality Check

According to a recent Globe and Mail editorial, this is reality:

Yes, Mr. Suzuki can be strident. He wants the oil sands to be “shut down.” His views on economics are crude. We do not agree with his extreme approach to curbing climate change.

Now, I’m not one for reality. Fiction is the best thing ever created. The only good thing about being human, most days, is fiction. Let’s hear it for dreaming.

However, even I have to acknowledge certain realities. Sadly.

One reality is that digging deep into the Earth, bringing up chthonic substances and letting them run over the top of the Earth is–and always has been–a bad idea.

Another reality is that economics is a human-made thing, as fictional as it comes. (Hesiod was a freaking poet, people.) If, at any point, the economy sucks, we can just change it, or stop it, or do anything we want to it.

Trust me. I rewrite fiction all the time.

By Holger Motzkau 2010