Moor_Dear Mister Essay Writer GuyHow Tasty Was My Little Frenchman

In August of 1563, Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay form, was in Rouen, France, at the invitation of King Charles the Ninth. It is not entirely clear why King Charles invited Montaigne, since the French monarch was only thirteen years old at the time and Montaigne doesn’t come immediately to mind as a rollicking playtime companion.

Perhaps the young king needed Montaigne’s help with his high school admissions essay?

In any case, also at Rouen that fateful weekend were three Tupinambá Indians, natives of what we now call Brazil, who had been lured onto a ship and transported to Europe for reasons not fully established by the historical record.

One theory (mine) is that the French wanted these fellows to taste the coq au vin.

Find-the-GoodRecently, I was asked to write a short essay describing one piece of wisdom to live by. I thought about it but did not have a brief, easy answer. I have made enough mistakes in my life to fill a whole bookshelf of dos and don’ts. My friend John works as an investigator in the public defender’s office but is a poet. That is probably why he managed to distill all his fatherly hopes and dreams into two rules for his only child: “Be nice to the dog and don’t do meth.” His son turned out kind, clear-eyed, and he graduated from a good college.


Short Stuff

Bobs, tempers, college rejection letters, kinds of love, postcards, nicknames, baby carrots, myopia, life flashing before eyes, gummy bears, the loser’s straw, Capri pants, charge on this phone battery, a moment on the lips (forever on the hips), caprice, velvet chokers, six months to live, penne, some dog tails, how long I’ve known you though it feels like a lifetime, even a complicated dive, tree stumps, a shot of tequila, breaking a bone, a temp job, bobby socks, when you’re having fun, a sucker punch, going straight to video, outgrown shoes, a travel toothbrush, just missing the basket, quickies, some penises, lard-based desserts, catnaps, staccato tonguing, a sugar rush, timeouts, Tom Cruise, a stint, brusque people, stubble, the “I’m sorry” in proportion to the offense, fig season, grammatical contractions, bunny hills, ice cream headaches, dachshunds, –ribs, –stops, –hands, –changed, … but sweet.

On top of the world...............Sometimes when we walk down the quiet hallway, and stop at apartment #210, the door opens into a narrow dark foyer, the bathroom to our immediate left.  But sometimes, the door opens and reveals nothing but blue sky. In the former of the two possibilities, if we turn right, we walk down another hallway. Keith Richards plastered on the purple wall. We enter the living room with its low red sectional couch, covered in purple and black sheets and red pillows. Looking east, towards Lake Michigan—a bank of horizontal windows, the blinds usually drawn.

He sits down and pulls out his black lock box of narcotics.

He arranges his pills on the glass-topped coffee table. On a good day, Roku is working, and he picks something from Youtube to watch, or asks what do you want? I always say Law and Order. In this iteration, he’s okay—the pain seems to be manageable, he might eat something, or he might not, he might throw up, or he might not, and so things are in a kind of equipoise; meaning, theoretically, days like this could go on forever. And this is why I go to the kitchen and pour a glass of wine, and eat a candy bar.

indexUp and down Broadway, in and out of journalism, taken by daguerreotypes, transported by opera, gathering gathering gathering experience—but for what? By the early 1850s, Whitman began to feel what he later described as a “great pressure, pressure from within.” With his thirty-fifth birthday fast approaching, he grew pained by the notion that at the same age Shakespeare was “adjudged already to deserve a place among the great masters,” having by then written such plays as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, and Richard III.

paper dreams front coverI imagine that everyone reading this who’s familiar with Ninth Letter and our distinctive format expects me to write something along the lines of “literary publishing needs to be more experimental! more design-heavy! just heavier in general—we need more magazines you can hardly lift!” And it’s true, Ninth Letter is a journal that stands out, literally, on the shelf: oversized, full of color, elaborately designed, packed with inserts, foldout posters, and other gadgets. Some readers adore this; others very vocally do not. The response we most often get from people seeing Ninth Letter for the first time is, “This is a literary magazine?” The answer is yes, if by “literary magazine” you mean a publication which primarily exists to publish poetry and prose of extraordinary quality. But it’s true, we do things a little differently from everyone else. Our mission, in addition to providing a forum for great writing, is to find ways to utilize graphic design so that it illuminates and enhances the literary experience. When our experiments are successful (more often than not, I hope), Ninth Letter becomes a new kind of reading experience. We have been credited with, or accused of, attempting to “redefine” what a literary journal is—maybe we’ve even made that claim ourselves somewhere along the way. But I don’t think “redefine” accurately describes Ninth Letter’s goal. What we really want to do is experiment with what a literary magazine can be. In this new millennium of crossed genres and blurred boundaries in art and media, ever-evolving technology can provide endless opportunities for creative work. Design and writing seem a natural partnership, both in print and online. At least, that’s how we see it.


People who have known you all your life are often surprised when they read your fiction. People who have held you in their arms, buttoned your pajamas, put band-aids on your booboos, whose children you grew up with. People who are family, and who like to remind you about that once or twice a year over a Rubio’s fish taco at the mall.

thrill of the chaste book jacketSimple Life or Soft Porn?

So wherein lies the cache of the fictive Amish Mädchen on the shelves and in the imaginations of contemporary readers? By what means have the Old Order Amish, who comprise less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. population, catapulted to literary stardom, so that novels about them repre­sent 15 percent of the top religious fiction titles sold by Barnes & Noble and 30 percent of a Christian bestseller list? What, exactly, is fueling the thrill of the chaste—this wildfire popularity of Amish romance literature and the virtues it contains? And what does it reveal about fiction, the Amish, and the rest of us?

The Gift of No

By Art Edwards


You’ve submitted your novel manuscript for six months, a year, two years. You’ve submitted it to ten, 50, 100 literary agents. You’ve submitted it to five, 15, 25 publishing companies. And all you’ve gotten for these efforts—when people have bothered to respond—is many clever and not-so-clever variations on “no.”

Well, all is not lost. It’s 2013, which means you can self-publish your novel. For a small fee—or even for free—you can publish an e-book or print-on-demand title and have it distributed to many of the same markets popular writers enjoy. No more do you have to rely on the publishing elite to get your work out there. You can do it yourself, and you never have to hear “no” again.

I received the rejection early yesterday morning, the last one, the one I”d been waiting on.

I finished my third novel, Badge, in late 2010, brimming with the confidence of having finally created something the traditional publishing industry might actually want. Ever since I cracked my first Vonnegut paperback when I was eighteen, I”ve fantasized about spending my life writing novels. Back then, such a dream required—and for the most part still does—getting an agent and a publisher.

Dead Meat

By J.S. Breukelaar


How do you start a new novel? Where does it begin?

First you straighten up your actual desk, then your computer desktop. Which leads to Facebook, of course, and Wired Magazine, and rereading the last story you submitted, finding a typo. A malignant one—dyzogotic instead of dizygotic in a story about twins. You will begin again. You will.

Dipping Your Toes in Social Media

Social media is here and it’s likely that using it will increase your chances of being read. You don’t have to do it. No one will hold a gun to your head. However, at the very least put your toe in the water and try it before eschewing it.

First, learn what you like in social media. When speaking with other authors we often hear: “I hate Twitter.” “Facebook is stupid.” “I don’t want to blog.” “I don’t have time for this.” Try a different approach. What can you enjoy doing in the world of social media? Who do you want to be online? Who do you want your potential readers to see? How can you craft that person? (For instance, Randy likes giving advice, researching, and being a know-it-all. Voila, her social media persona.

By the fall of 2010, my mother had been sick for a year and a half, already outliving the parameters of her terminal diagnosis. I had been living with my parents for a year by then, and my days were overflowing with her illness, creating a heartbreaking, beautiful, heightened, stressful and joyful existence, if an insular one. To cope and try to make sense of things, I attempted to write about it, but  it wasn’t really working.  This was the most important thing I’d ever experienced in my life, and I felt it should be my next book.  But nothing was taking shape. Aside from a few inspired blog posts, I was failing miserably.

The really great thing about finishing a book is that you go to write your to-do list and ‘book’ is not there. Neither are any number of book-related entries.

Manuscript? Nope. Chapter 3 rewrite? Hell no. Research ‘anal retentive’ for Chapter 40? Ask that guy on Level 6 about formatting? Get the Czech word from Grandma Zuzi for a person-whose-hungry-heart-has-become-a-stomach-that-is-eating-them-alive. Update Evernote. Download that cool mind-mapping app… buy a new pencil sharpener/laptop-case/ring binder/more colored pens (or notebooks, butcher’s paper, chocolate, Merlot, beta blockers, cold medicine, miso soup packs…).  None of that’s there.

My sister-in-law is a neurolinguist and my wife is a lawyer. I’m a writer and college professor of writing and literature. To say that we don’t bump heads when it comes to what constitutes “good” or “bad” writing is like saying that clichés aren’t the repetitive iterations of the indoctrinated. Better yet: we don’t “bump heads”; we smash each others’ brains into metaphorical food processors and whip up some semantic taters.

The discussion is not new. We’ve talked about it over the years. In particular, it’s an ongoing fight between me and my wife. Our most recent battle took place one night while my sister-in-law was visiting with us.  Afterwards, I talked to one of my writer-friends. This pal brought up what seemed at first a good point: since it is our profession to be writers, can we not “own” that craft? Are we not able to determine what is and is not good writing? As an analogy, my friend offered, “It’s not like you’re telling your wife that what she practices is ‘bad law,’ or that what your sister-in-law does is ‘bad science'; but they’re telling you what they think is ‘good’ writing.”

At first, this sounded right on. But the next morning, after I resumed the intellectual battle with my wife, armed with this new analogy, my advance proved short, and was ultimately repelled. I didn’t stump my wife, even if the analogy made her think for a moment. I had to consider her counter-argument: just because “writing” is not the main component of her profession (since, as a lawyer, the intellectual understanding of the law and its processes is her foremost skill), in almost every instance at her job she cannot articulate her ideas without writing them. The same goes for my sister-in-law. So writing is central to both their occupations, yet neither would consider herself a “writer.”

This all comes after teaching David Foster Wallace’s “Tense Present,” or, as it appears in his collection Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, “Authority and American Usage,” in which he laments, among other things, Academic English and other abominations, like legalese. Wallace, I feel confident in arguing, cannot stand Academic English (he calls it “a cancer”) or legalese, and I admit his point of view was enticing, especially since, like me, he was a writer of literary fiction and nonfiction.

In his essay, both of the above-mentioned uses of the English language come up as asides–mentions in an essay that concerns itself with the “Usage Wars” between Descriptivist and Prescriptivist linguists and other language nerds. Think of these as the Democrats and Republicans of how people use English. Descriptivists might say that “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” is perfectly valid English, not unlike a Democrat might argue that everyone equally deserves the same basic human rights, whether black or white, man or woman, straight or homosexual, etcetera. Obviously, people do speak this way; and if people speak this way, how can we ignore that this is one way that the English language is used? Descriptivists can explain what’s happening in the language as Standard Black English dialect with elided vowels and dropped consonant endings. They would also claim that Arnold’s now-famous Diff’rent Strokes (note the spelling as appropriate to the show’s characters’ dialect) punchline is just as valid English as the Standard Written English equivalent of “Whatever might you mean, Willis?”

The Prescriptivists, on the other hand, do not ignore the multiple uses of language, but prioritize the Standard Written English dialect over others as the language of commerce and discourse, kind of like the Republican economics of the “trickle-down” philosophy that favors the fiscally-privileged. Consider another example that compares Standard Written English and California English (my own native dialect): “Dude, this is hella good guacamole,” as opposed to its Standard Written English equivalent: “My friend, this guacamole is exceptional.” Thus, Prescriptivists care about Standard Written English and argue its supremacy in socio-economic discourse (i.e., talking or writing to one another, especially when it comes to the finer points of advancing one’s business goals, or “winning friends and influencing people”). Of course, realistically, there exist rhetorical situations in which the use of such a dialect as Standard Black English, California English, and/or others specific to particular groups of speakers remains preferable to SWE, which Wallace likewise admits.

So, a problem in my claim that AE and legalese are both examples of “bad” writing is my wife and her sister’s central argument: that within those professions there exist both “good” and “bad” writers. There are writers who take AE and legalese to their extremes, and there are writers who employ academic and legal terms but who, for the most part, use SWE to convey their ideas. Compare the following

“I am herewith returning the stipulation to dismiss in the above entitled matter; the same being duly executed by me”

To–while on the same Google search of “bad legalese”–this from The Wall Street Journal.

Or consider the most esoteric of articles written for the journal Discourse and Disclosure, such as the recently published “HILDA: A Discourse Parser Using Support Vector Machine Classification,” by Hugo Hernault, Helmut Prendinger, and David A. duVerle.

But just because these experts do not write the kind of prose that I think makes “good” writing, it’s preposterous of me to think that all members of these professions ought to write in the clear but flowery language of the literary ilk.

I confess my inclination to argue that the academies which have produced the linguistic ticks of prose in the scientific and legal worlds (not to mention a thousand other jargon-laden professions) ought to revise their strategies and take classes on writing clear and deliberate prose. But such a thesis is impractical and asinine. To argue such only serves to piss off my wife and sister-in-law–and others in their respective professions–and in the interests of maintaining decent familial and romantic relations it’s best for me to consider alternatives.

This is, ironically, what DFW argues in his review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage: that rhetoric is an element that traditional linguists have failed to consider in the majority of their arguments, either for or against prescriptivism. Language itself is, after all, something all humans use, either speaking, in sign-language, or in writing, and just because my artistic medium is the language itself does not give me leeway to judge all uses thereof. That would be like Picasso telling a house painter he didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.

In hindsight, now that I’ve taken the time to think through these thoughts and write them here, and after revising said thoughts and the writing thereof on numerous occasions, and after the badly planned morning assault on my wife’s position in this argument–the result of which was said wife, in her bathrobe, picking up her laptop and stalking out of the living room where we’d previously sat together, peacefully enjoying our coffee and checking our email accounts–I have decided that when considering the immediate audience of my lawyer wife, and, by extension, my scientist sister-in-law, it is best to agree: lawyers and scientists can be pretty good writers.