Posts Tagged ‘writing’

My Monkey Makes my Mother Mad

March 16, 2013

I had no idea what I was doing when I began the project that eventually culminated in this blog. Looking back on it, I’m reminded of the character played by Richard Dreyfuss in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind who was compelled to mindlessly build that miniature mountain inside his house. I just had to do something, but I really didn’t know what or why.

So I kept writing and reading about writing. And I took some English classes at Cal Poly Pomona. Then one of my professors, Dr. Carola Kaplan, suggested I apply for their MA program. (She advised that if I continued to take classes, sooner or later I would “accumulate” a Master’s Degree.) Many of the longer articles on this blog began as academic papers.

I continued to write until my computer was constipated. So I read the books on how to write the perfect cover letter and I sent out queries and more queries. And all that ever got me was shoe-boxes full of rejection letters.

After more than a decade of unrequited querying, I finally went on an Open Thread at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog and asked the nice people there how much it would cost to start my own blog. When they told me it was free I said, “Thank you so much. If I had known that, I would have gotten myself a blog years ago.”

Sometimes I begin writing a poem knowing exactly what I want to say and it turns out just like I planned. Sometimes. Other times I set out to write something, but I end up writing something else. And sometimes I think I have a long way to go when the poem suddenly informs me that I’m finished.

And sometimes I start with an idea that’s bugging me or just a single word. (I began this poem thinking about how much I like the word notion.) Other times an entire line will pop into my head. Once a line zipped across my brain, but I ignored it. A few days later it returned—louder. It wasn’t until I sat down at my computer and typed it up that I realized that the line was entirely alliterative: My monkey makes my mother mad. But I didn’t know what the poem was going to be about until I had finished writing the first stanza.

My Funny Farm

My monkey makes my mother mad
He also aggravates my dad
He took his car the other day
And drove it to the Hudson Bay

My kitty cat is kooky too
He likes to strut down to the zoo
And tell the tigers to all stand back
If they don’t want to get attacked

I have a hamster named Houdini
And though he is rather teeny
He’ll quickly pick a thousand locks
You could not hold him in Fort Knox

My kangaroo’s a real joker
Up all night playing poker
His friends come to destroy the house
I think I shoulda’ got a mouse

I got a hippo last July
He really is one swell guy
Everything he does is super
I got a giant pooper scooper

Living on this funny farm
I know my pets don’t mean no harm
But both my parents moved away
And no one wants to come and play

Richard W. Bray

An Effective Title-Writing Strategy for Academic Papers

September 28, 2012

Here’s a fun and simple exercise to help students compose effective titles for academic papers.

1. Group students in threes.

2. Instruct each group to create a list of eight Type A or Type B titles (see below) for popular motion pictures.


Balloons: I’m not Leaving this House

Imaginary Friend: No Club for Wimps

Switcheroo: Freaky Mother/Daughter Situation

High Quality H2O: From the Bench to the Starting Lineup

He Nose Who’s Lying: A Man and his Puppet

3. Students turn in lists.

4. Instructor reads titles to entire class and has students guess which movies they refer to.

The title of an academic paper should inform the reader of the paper’s main argument.

Which of the following four titles best announces its paper’s argument?

Cars: Who Needs Them?

Automobiles: An Expensive Waste of Energy

Driving Down your Freeway

Why Automobiles are a Bad Investment

The first title, Cars: Who Needs Them?, tells us the what but not the why of the argument.

The third title, Driving Down your Freeway, might score a few points with old hippy teachers like me by cleverly referencing a Doors lyric, but it doesn’t provide any clues about the paper’s contents.

The fourth title, Why Automobiles are a Bad Investment, doesn’t reveal why cars are a bad investment.

Only the second title, Automobiles: An Expensive Waste of Energy, clearly expresses the paper’s topic and its main argument.

My two favorite strategies for wring a titles for academic papers are:

a) General Idea/Colon/Specific Topic (Argument)

b) Clever Quotation/Colon/Specific Topic (Argument)

Here are some type A titles from this blog:

Listening to the Whirlwind: Theodicy for Deists

The Perils of Bardolatry: Harold Bloom’s Limited Perception of Hamlet


Silent Murmurs: A Funny Teacher Story

Here’s one title where I did it backwards (oops):

An Amusing Teacher Story: Tammy’s Puppy

Here are three titles where I used a dash instead of a colon:

Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys—Some Thoughts on Courage and Freedom

What’s the Matter with Kids these Days?, Part 473—It’s all about the Music, Man

Holden Caulfield—Whimpering Little Phony

Here are some type B titles from this blog:

All the Suffering the World Can Feel: The Pain and the Glory of Graham Greene’s Catholicism

Genius Knows Itself: The Wonderful Words of Emily Dickinson

Not Only by Private Fraud but by Public Law: Thomas More’s Utopia and the Imperfectability of Human Nature

Ghosts of all my Lovely Sins: Some Thoughts on the Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker

The “Oriental Mind”: E. M. Forster’s Fatuous Caricatures of Indians in A Passage to India

Innocence: A Famed American Virtue Demolished in a Wicked Novella by Herman Melville

Faith Might be Stupid, but it Gets us Through: The Syncretic Collision in Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich


Of course, this is a blog, so I don’t always feel compelled to devise titles which are suitable for academia.

Here are some titles which include a clever quotation but no specific topic:

The Steaming Complaint of the Resting Beast

Natural if not Normal

This Business of Saving Souls

We Think by Feeling

Take it Decently

The Hemingway Defense

Famed American Virtue

For All They Care

Here are some clever titles that don’t inform the reader specifically what the paper is about:

Application #2

Hundred Dollar Rip-Off

In Praise of Clever

William Faulkner and the English Language

Men and Sports

Application #6

The Three Types of Irony and an Amusing Teacher Story

Celebrating the Violent Death of a Wicked Man

New Yorker Magazine Buries the Lede in Puff Piece on Education Secretary Duncan

nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH

The Island of Misused and Abused Words

What’s a War Junkie? Che v Zapata

Why am I so Goofy for Burn Notice?

I Wanna Hear

Me and Michael Medved

Confessions of a not-so-Old Curmudgeon

Negatory on the Neg

Poets at the Microphone

Teacher Knows Best–Not

Fantasy Christians

Seinfeld and Gilligan’s Island

Some Friendly Advice for Young Teachers in a World Poisoned by Power-Mad Bureaucrats and Clueless Billionaires

And my Thoughts on articles are book reports and other musings which do not necessarily contain thesis statements and thus do not require academic titles:

Some Thoughts on Joseph Sugarman’s Adweek Copywriting Handbook

Some Thoughts on Lyrics on Several Occasions

Some Thoughts on Where I Was From

Some Thoughts on The Spooky Art

Some Thoughts on Alfred Kazin’s America

Some Thoughts on Slaughterhouse-Five

Some Thoughts on Washington Rules

Some Thoughts on The Glass House

Some Thoughts on Primates and Philosophers

Some Thoughts on American on Purpose

Some Thoughts on The New American Militarism

Some Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

More Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

Some Thoughts on On Writing

Some Thoughts on the Efficacy of DARE-Type Programs and a Funny Teacher Story

Some Thoughts on The God Delusion

Some Thoughts on Streetball

On Redundancy, Oxymorons, and Grammatical Correctness

by Richard W. Bray

Writers on Writing

February 24, 2010

Adrienne Rich

Robert Pinsky

Writers on Writing

(Editor’s Note: This post is the result of a conversation I had in the comments section of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog. Until quite recently I would have scoffed at the very notion that such a thing as an online community could possibly exist)

W. H. Auden The Dyer’s Hand

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such a display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off. (11)

Richard Wilbur Responses, Prose Pieces

Emily Dickinson elected the economy of desire, and called her privation good, rendering it positive by renunciation. And so she came to live in a huge world of delectable distances….And not only are the objects of her desire distant; they are also very often moving away, their sweetness increasing in proportion to their remoteness. “To disappear enhances,” one of the poems begins, and another closes with these lines:

The Mountain–at a given distance–
In Amber–lies–
Approached–the Amber flits–a little–
And That’s–the Skies


Adrienne Rich On Secrets, Lies and Silence

I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat…But she carefully selected her society and controlled the disposal of her time. (160)

The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller

So long as modern man conceives of himself as valuable only because he fits into some niche in the machine-tending pattern, he will never know anything more than a pathetic doom. (60)

Ira Gershwin Lyrics on Several Occasions

When I was on jury service in New York many years ago there was a case found for the defendant. Afterwards, in the corridor, I saw the lawyer for the plaintiff approaching and thought I was going to be lectured. But no. Greetings over, all he wanted to know was whether the words or the music came first. (41)

Theodore Roethke On Poetry & Craft

The writer who maintains that he works without regard for the opinion of others is either a jackass or a pathological liar. (48)

Norman Mailer The Spooky Art

Kurt Vonnegut and I are friendly with one another but wary. There was a period when we used to go out together fairly often because our wives liked each other, and Kurt and I would sit there like bookends. We would be terribly careful with one another; we both knew the huge cost of a literary feud, so we certainly didn’t want to argue. On the other hand, neither of us would be caught dead saying to the other, “Gee, I liked your last book,” and then be met with silence because the party of the second part could not reciprocate. (288)

Robert Pinsky The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide

There are no rules.
However, principles may be discerned in actual practice: for example, in the way people actually speak, or in the lines poets have written. If a good line contradicts a principle one has formulated, then the principle, by which I mean a kind of working idea, should be discarded or amended.

Javier Marias Written Lives (on Rainer Maria Rilke)

The fact that such a sensitive person, so much given to communing, should have turned out to be the greatest poet of the twentieth century (of this there is little doubt) has had disastrous consequences for most of the lyrical poets who have come after, those who continue communicating indiscriminately with whatever comes their way, with, however, far less remarkable results and, it has to be said, to the serious detriment of their personalities. (83-84)

Gore Vidal United States

Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels, and sex certainly gives no meaning in life to anything but itself. I have often thought that much of D. H. Lawrence’s self-lacerating hysteria toward the end of his life must have come out of some “blood knowledge” that the cruel priapic god was mad, bad and dangerous to know, and, finally, not even a palliative to the universal strangeness. (37)

George H.W. Rylands Words and Poetry

When a generation labels everything as “superb” or “divine,” when a man says “damn” or “hell,” the actual meaning of the word is secondary to its emotional value; the word becomes a symbol of pleasure or disgust. The use of language in poetry is extraordinarily similar.” (72)

Stephen Fry The Ode Less Travelled

I HAVE A DARK AND DREADFUL SECRET. I write poetry. This is an embarrassing confession for an adult to make. In their idle hours Winston Churchill and Noel Coward painted. For fun and relaxation Albert Einstein played the violin. Hemingway hunted, Agatha Christie gardened, James Joyce sang arias and Nabokov chased butterflies. But Poety? (xi)

Percy Lubbock The Craft of Fiction

…when we think of the storyteller as opposed to the dramatist, it is obvious that in the full sense of the word there is no such thing as drama in a novel. The novelist may give the very words that were spoken by his characters, the dialogue, but of course he must interpose on his own account to let us know how the people appeared and where they were, and what they were doing. (111)

Stephen King On Writing

The dictum in writing class used to be “write what you know.” Which sounds good, but what if you want to write about starships exploring other planets or a man who murders his wife and then tries to dispose of her body with a wood-chipper? (158)

Lajos Egri The Art of Dramatic Writing

It is imperative that your story starts in the middle, and not under any circumstances, at the beginning. (200)

by Richard W. Bray