Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Devil’s Dictionary and The Blank Page

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There are no culture wars in writing

To my embarrassment now, I once thought that part of building a set of writing tools should include me making a thesaurus of ways to write ‘said’ and 'thought.' This even after Hemingway years of adolescent reading, by the way. The problem (I thought) was that there were too many ‘He saids’ and ‘She saids.’ The ‘said’ wasn’t expressive enough. Wasn't the english language greater than 'said?' It is to cringe now, remembering the enthusiasm with which I went after that. It would have been a Devil’s Dictionary.

I started a quite different Devil’s Dictionary when I was a teacher, one that was true to the spirit of Bierce’s original. I felt the need of an antidote to the numbing code of educese that I was immersed in at the time, a language that hurt the ears and the brain. It was never ending. It crept in everywhere, this postliterate stew of therapy culture, TV talk, and self-regarding makey-uppey technocratic code. Teachers used it, parents used it, even students got in on the act

This code is a soft fascism, a mental kool-aid or acceptance of group-think, and it lives on ever strong. Its buzz words have passed into acceptance, and to query them is to be a crank, or a snob.

Some of those I had hoped would become relics, or at least laughed into parody:

Comfortable with
This is the most ironic, as it is the opposite of attention and learning (see homeostasis, entropy, 2nd law of thermodynamics)

Interact with
HAL 9000: ‘Dave I feel the need to interact with you.’

Buy into (also Ownership)
This is the assumption that a person will do the work of conning themselves for you (see Stockholm Syndrome)

Appropriate
A deceptively glib term that is nonetheless another sworn, blue-stocking enemy of learning (see Stockholm Syndrome again. Its true meaning? Conformity.

Experience
Used as a verb, it declares that nobody does anything any more: they experience it. It is the apogee of every single person's specialness.

Group work
Long a stalwart of the code, this is a euphemism that smarter students understand well - another term for Lowest Common Denominator aka You Do It, I Watch aka We Discourage Individualism Here (see also: Share, Group Work)

Making choices
This is only encouraged when the choices are… appropriate (see above)

Pedagogy/pedagogically speaking (etc)
Though it sounds bad, this is a teacher’s self-elevation to the ranks of the elect.

Problem-solving
Though long in the tooth, this epic of utilitarianism is a peerless term to disguise the chloroforming and kidnapping of content, and to maintain the illusion that ‘how’ has supplanted ‘why.’

Success (usually 'experience success')
In a world of angry entitlement and anxious self-branding, this means the process whereby one feels entitled to claim that one understands something or can do something - after it has been watered down enough.

Sharing
A very common call to enforce and celebrate mediocrity - 'a no-brainer,' as the expression goes.

Celebrate
... the inexorable next step – the coup de grace, so to speak - to 'Sharing' above.

Creative
That which can be explained and taught by pedagogues, and will assure parents that their offspring are exceptional. (It also serves to put the likes of poets like Yeats in their places: 'Only that which is useless and cannot be taught is irresistible.’)

Sad it was, and is, to hear these words parroted, and to witness how this Gresham’s Law of language side-swiped words and thoughts.
How many endless meetings we sat through while this code rolled through, propelled by glib, confident and well-thought-of fellow-pedagogues who had mastered the code.

Outcome, service (as verb or riotous implications that seemed to escape all present), conference (as verb, following or preceding the way this new verb ‘obligated’ came into being.)

Sometimes they cascaded so much that they could bring on vertigo in the listener: ‘Johnnie will experience success pedagogically when we service him with the appropriate interventions and he is comfortable with making choices that give him ownership of sharing the creative process in facilitating his relationships…’

A good number of colleagues would privately snigger at this guff, but such is the school system and the inbuilt conformism, private mockery never became public questioning or, God forbid, rejection of the code. My compromise was to look over the heads of these words (smoke from battle) and toward the goal (victory in the war on unknowling). And for damned sure, I resolved not to be cornered into becoming a word snob or a cynic. I also learned to take the long view, and to see that this code was just a sign of the narcissism and conformity around us, and the insecurities these arouse.

But this code sure tempted me to mischief and to what would have been serial CLMs (career limiting moves.) It was so very tempting to make my disagreement plain with the open mockery and laughter that I knew from growing up in Dublin. A bad idea. A stand-off ensued, and I worked to keep language being dangerous and funny and troublesome on weekends with writing stories.

To these glories from the school system, I added others that I refuse to use in writing or conversation. A representative sample: relationship, resources, issues, coming to terms with, finding one’s voice, marginalizing, reaching out, community, creative, and the one that stops me in my tracks lately, ‘obligated.’ (My karma must be off-kilter in a big way: these very terms have become staples of CBC morning radio.)

None of this culture-war skirmishing matters when the blank page in there in front of me. No lists work, no thesaurus directs. Writing is the cure for all that. The sinews of language are demotic - listen to Elmore Leonard or Samual Beckett. There are no culture wars in writing, there are only voices.

As for those words and phrases and 'memes' that seem to swarm into conversation everywhere, and threaten to bring me back to that staff-room snooze, I have an ace in the hole anyway: I work best when provoked.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Brady

John Brady is the author of the acclaimed Matt Minogue mystery novels. His first Matt Minogue mystery novel, A Stone of the Heart, won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award, and his novels Unholy Ground, Kaddish In Dublin, All Souls and The Good Life have all been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. The sixth novel in the series, Islandbridge, was shortlisted for the Dashiell Hammett prize and his most recent, The Coast Road, was named a Globe & Mail Top 100 book for 2010.

Go to John Brady’s Author Page