Friday 5: Just Wing It

What’s something for which you are waiting your tern?

I’m not waiting my turn, as such, but we have some new purchases we need to make for a newer, bigger apartment, but you can’t just get everything at once!

What have you lately gone cuckoo for?

I’m incredibly excited to go thrifting for things we need for the new apartment!

What’s got you feeling down?

As of this writing, I’m incredibly nervous about elections in Sweden (and in the US). By the time this post goes up, I’ll either be slightly relieved or even more anxious. We’ll see how the Swedish elections go. (Or how they’ve gone, I guess.)

What’s something you acquired that was unexpectedly cheep?

We picked up a new-to-us LG TV for a third of the price a similar one would have been new, including door step delivery! Again: the power of thrift shopping.

What’s that fowl smell?

I should probably take out the recycling…

372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back: Hate Reading for Fun (and Profit?)

For almost the entire time I’ve had a GoodReads profile, under “favorite books” I’ve just put: “All of them. Except the ones you like, probably.” It was as true in May 2007 as it is today: I hate everyone’s super trendy, faddish fave, including Ernest Cline.

The cover of Ready Player One

Enter Michael J. Nelson, my childhood comedy hero, and one of his RiffTrax writers, Conor Lastowka, and their podcast 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back. They’ve turned their attention from mediocre movies to mediocre books—in this case, the oeuvre of Ernest Cline. (There is talk of continuing the podcast and branching into other books, but so far nothing has materialized.) And while the podcast is rooted more in humor than in dissecting bad writing, the humor does (inadvertently?) highlight some of the more subtle traits of weak writing. Until we get a podcast that’s a round table of editors picking apart an anonymized slush pile, this is the next best thing.

 

Bibliotherapy: Walden

A stone bench by Walden pond on a sunny day.

Friday was a rough day for me for a couple of different reasons, but the news and commentary surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings certainly didn’t help. In my rage and frustration, I turned to my books (cheaper than therapy!) and pulled out Walden.

It’s a book I’ve loved since high school, and there’s always something comforting in going back to the books of your formative years. It’s like a hug from a loving parent, or your favorite comfort food. But more than that I needed a reminder of what I miss from America, what I’m proud of, to reorient my inner compass.

“Reading” is always my favorite essay in the whole collection. It has precious little to do with anything I was upset about on Friday, but still, it helped. I might even commit the entire essay to memory, so soothing is the act of reading it. For now, two of my favorite quotes:

The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of the divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision. No dust has settled on that robe; no time has elapsed since that divinity was revealed.

And this one, which struck me the first time I read it. I copied it on to the notebook cover for my English binder immediately after I read it for AP English in the summer before 11th grade; if I were the artsy type I would cross-stitch it or write it out in calligraphy, frame it, and hang it on the wall alongside my bookshelves.

A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.

The choicest of relics, indeed.

On Swimming in Language

I will confess to having a fondness for astrology. Stars, Greek mythology, and the leftover trappings of the New Age movement captured my imagination at a young age, so that’s hardly surprising. I know enough about the topic to know not only my Sun sign, but all the rest of them. And perhaps—because my horoscope contains a good deal of Pisces, the dual fishes swimming in opposite directions, and I’ve consequently steeped myself in fishy lore—that’s why I think about editing and translating as swimming. Or maybe more like deep-sea diving.

(Not teaching, as much. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that the interactive and interpersonal nature of teaching means that I don’t have to imagine myself into someone else’s thoughts quite as often. They’re right there to interact with me, in the full spectrum of in-person communication.)

One of the psychology rockstars of the last forty years or so is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his “flow” model. If “flow” is a new concept for you in this context, you might better know it as “being in the zone.” Unsurprisingly, since I enjoy my work and am competent at it, I find myself “in the zone” quite regularly. It would be easy enough to simply describe this “swimming” state of being as flow, as being in the zone. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate, though. Swimming in language isn’t like getting lost in my own writing, or working on a new piece of jewelry. Swimming in language is something above and beyond “the zone.”

In any writing-related work that I do, there comes a point where I reach out to original writer, or speaker, or whoever generated the text I’m working on, and connect with them in my own head. I’m sure everyone in the field has their own personal metaphor for that connection; the arbitrary one that my consciousness and my physiology has lit upon is swimming. It’s like diving into an ocean with various currents that can carry you different places.

One current is the author: what did they mean? what tone are they trying to convey here? is there a better word to express what they’re getting at?

Another current is the reader: is this construction clear enough? will they get the author’s intention here? will this word disrupt their reading in any negative way?

Translating has a few more currents: the source language and all of its history and metaphors and idioms, as well as the target language. The tension between the two is yet another third stream that can catch me and send me circling for hours without going anywhere.

And beneath all of them is always my own curiosity, a nefarious undertow. A quick check on a given word’s etymology can, if I’m not careful, lead to a half-hour trip down the Google black hole: if these two are related, how about this third term? is there a Swedish equivalent of this idiom? what’s the name for this kind of grammatical construction?

(By now, anyone else familiar with Pisces as a metaphor for the dissolved ego and the collective unconscious can read a deeper meaning into all of this. But without the woo, the metaphor still holds.)

Conversely, if I can’t dive into the language and swim in the words, then work gets much, much harder. Not that editing or translating is all about inspiration and muses, of course, but when I’m properly swimming, the right word or phrase, the right comma or recasting, comes almost effortlessly. When I have to sit and consciously chop things up or look up word after word in the dictionary, the result is always noticeably worse (in my opinion). Most of the time, that belabored solution just gets replaced by something that comes to me, out of nowhere, hours later.

Like deep sea diving, some adjustment is needed to avoid getting the bends. “The bends,” in this case, being unable to communicate and express myself. Trying to think about something other than words, and trying to articulate what I’m thinking and what I want, is a little challenging after a long stretch of language work. It gets even weirder when I’ve been translating; that’s when I switch to an incomprehensible pidgin full of “non-standard” (that is, awful) pronunciation and rookie false friend mistakes I would never make in my professional work. I have to remember who I am, remember how to be myself.

Editors, translators, and other language professionals, I’m curious: what does your work feel like to you?

The Editor’s Social Network

One of the best aspects of freelancing, and freelance editing in particular, is meeting other word nerds (freelance and otherwise), and the Internet makes that easy to the point of banality.

Photo by Kevin Curtis on Unsplas

Every job I’ve worked on, I’ve of course enjoyed for its own sake. I’m glad to be helping women in their academic fields put forward their best, most polished work; I’m honored that people have trusted me with their life stories; I’ve edited manuscripts that changed how I think about things like art and aesthetics. In a vacuum, these things would be enough to make my heart sing.

But with all of this work comes an added bonus: a reason and an excuse to socialize. Some issues are so thorny or weird or obscure (or imaginary!) that it’s just easier to ask a person than consult a style guide. (This makes a style guide no less indispensable!) And there’s no satisfaction quite like watching your vocabulary or grammar inquiry in a Facebook group explode into a thread with over a hundred comments, as people engage in serious discussions on usage as well as toss jokes and animated GIFs back and forth. Or like using a query about a particular Arabic translation or Roman history terminology as an excuse to make conversation with old friends who are polyglots or classics scholars.

Is there a corollary to this? That a good editor will have a broad network of contacts that represents a diverse, multifaceted cross-section of society? I hesitate to make any proclamations about what makes a good editor from my obscure and humble little corner. But years ago, someone pointed me in the direction of an editor’s group on Facebook, and I’ve found it immeasurably helpful and encouraging. If a baby editor were to ask my advice on the field, it would be this: hang out with other editors. Follow their blogs, drop in on the Twitter chats, join the Facebook groups. Their collective wisdom will improve your editing, and their collective nerdery will make you (finally?) feel at home.

Critique Groups and Fiction Editing

No matter how busy I get, I try to always make time for critique groups. I run the Stockholm Writing Group Meetup’s critique sessions*, and I participate in two private ones. While they’re a great excuse to socialize according to the Swedish model of “plan out your social calendar two weeks in advance,” I also consider them indispensable professional development when it comes to fiction editing.

"What I sing when I forget to make plans 2 weeks in advance with my Swedish friends" and a gif of a blonde woman singing "All by myself"
Post from the extremely relateable An Immigrant in Sweden tumblr. Screencapped because Tumblr’s embed code is a mess.

Most of my editing has been academic writing (scientific academic writing at that), which is its own linguistic kettle of fish; the good news for me is that by the time I get a paper, I only have to worry about the mechanics of the language. There might be technical jargon I have to parse, and judgment calls to make on whether a turn of phrase would be unclear to specialists (as opposed to the layperson), but those are details that tend towards the relatively objective. Few people read academic articles for fun; “style” here is about clarity rather than sparkling prose, and as long as the sentence says what the author intends, with precision and no ambiguity, everything’s good.

The absolute opposite applies to editing fiction (and, to an extent, popular non-fiction). Suddenly you’re in big picture land. Where do you start?

Critiquing, for me, is a way to edge into the shallow end of developmental fiction editing. It’s easy to say whether I like something, hate it, or just don’t care about it; it’s much, much harder to pinpoint why that might be. But being forced to do that on a regular basis (I’d say that three weeks out of four I’m meeting with one of my critique groups) makes me slow down and pay attention to writing and think about what works for me and what doesn’t. Other people catch things that I missed, too, no matter how many times or how slowly or carefully I read a manuscript. They ask questions I wouldn’t think to ask; I can take those questions and apply them later to other manuscripts. They challenge my suggestions and force me to back up what I’m saying with solid argumentation beyond “I just like it better this way.”

More ambitious freelancers than me would call this “networking” and I guess it’s that, too. Except that’s not why I do it; I don’t anticipate picking up a single paid project out of my critique groups, and I don’t know if I’d want to. But I’m fine with making my editor self publicly available, so to speak. It’s my equivalent of a free trial. If you like the preview, you can purchase the whole version!

*Full disclosure: I’m also a sponsor of this Meetup, which basically amounts to splitting the annual Meetup fee with the other woman who runs it in exchange for having my logo buried three clicks deep somewhere on our page. I don’t really benefit from you joining it or anything.

Stockholm Kulturnatt 2018

A fortunate turn of events meant that a little over a week ago, I was able to finish my usual Saturday obligations earlier than usual and meet a friend in town to attend Stockholm Kulturnatt.

Even though Kulturnatt has been an annual event in Stockholm since 2010, this year was the first I’d heard of it. I’m glad I was able to make time this year, but I’m also a little disappointed at all of the years I’ve missed!

I didn’t know quite what to expect, except free admission to assorted “cultural events.” But I’d been thinking recently that I don’t really do enough to actually enjoy Stockholm (aside from my annual treks to Litteraturmässan), so Kulturnatten seemed like a good way to remedy that. I met up with a friend from Meetup, Thomas, with plans to meet other friends of his later in the evening. We queued forever, which seemed ridiculous since it was a free event.

“Maybe they’re counting heads for fire capacity?” I suggested.

“But the building’s huge!”

“Bureaucracy.”

As it turned out, the bottleneck that was leading to queuing was the clerk at the desk, explaining the evening’s program (a couple of lectures and a self-administered quiz) to visitors.

“Jesus, is this it? This is so awkward. Can’t we just walk past?” I asked no one in a low voice, but shuffled up to the desk to hear the presentation nonetheless. No ticket was given, no name taken, nothing. We smiled at the clerk and took the flyer and the quiz and then went on our way. A safe distance from the counter, we laughed.

“That was the entire reason for the queue. That was, literally, the most Swedish thing I’ve ever seen,” Thomas said. “People queuing because they’re too polite to just walk by. Oh, God. In Britain people would have figured it out and just walked past, given a little nod. Oh, Sweden.”

We had a wander around until his Couchsurfing friends showed up; a mutual Finnish friend of ours had been ahead of us in the queue and was off somewhere with her own friends.  The Army Museum wouldn’t have been my first choice, so I didn’t pay too much attention to anything (though I still learned about the S-363 incident, so that’s something); I was pleasantly surprised to see placards featuring wartime literature (George Orwell, All Quiet on the Western FrontBödeln). By the time the rest of the group arrived, Thomas and I had pretty much had our fill, so after confirming we’d missed the last lecture of the evening, we waited by the entrance for the Couchsurfers to finish the quiz.

The de facto leader of our little group, by virtue of her nerdy enthusiasm, wanted to go to the Nobel museum, so once she and the other Couchsurfer finished the quiz, off we went. Meanwhile, the Finn and her friends had since departed for the Finnish Institute without catching up to us—ships in the night. Thomas and I stayed with the Couchsurfing friends at the Nobel museum for just a brief moment; Thomas read the mood and came to the conclusion that the male half of the Couchsurfing couple was really interested in a date night with Excitable Nerd, so we broke off and made for SF Bokhandeln, with a pit stop at Storkyrkan.

“I’ve never been in here,” he commented.

“I don’t think I have, either.”

They were having a choral performance which I would have been happy to stay and listen to, but I also took the time to wander around a bit like a tourist. (I didn’t think to take any pictures, though. I guess not that much of a tourist.)

The interior of Storkyrkan in Stockholm, Sweden. The view is down the center aisle, facing a stained glass rossette. On the left hand side is a spiral staircase attached to a column, leading to a pulpit. The ceilings are high and vaulted; the columns are red brick. The seats on either side are empty.
Image courtesy Holger Ellgaard.

Such opulence and artistic finery surprised me in a nominally Lutheran church, and I said as much to Thomas.

“Yeah, that didn’t come until the Communists. They used to be Greek Orthodox or whatever before that.”

I thought of the occasional midnight Easter and Christmas services I had attended at my dad’s childhood Eastern Orthodox church, so much bigger and fancier than the Methodist church I had grown up with. “That explains it.”

We both had a chuckle over the prayer candles that now, in addition to (or maybe instead of?) the donation box, simply had a sign with a phone number where you could Swish your donation.

After a few minutes, we turned tail and headed for SF Bokhandeln. We were too late for any of their events, so we just browsed. I ended up picking up Hanabi, which I hadn’t seen the last time I was there. I also picked up a book for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club that I was having a hard time getting from the library. I’ve since started reading it and unfortunately I’m having a bit of buyer’s remorse. So it goes.

“I wonder how long it would take you, if you just sat down and tried to read the whole shop. Years?” Thomas wondered, picking up and putting down a generic-looking space opera book. “Like, this is the kind of stuff I want to have time to read, but I just end up reading the summary somewhere instead.”

“I mean, not all books are good books. Some are only worth the Wikipedia plot synopsis.”

Finnish friend had shaken her group and landed at a bar on Sveavägen and asked us to come join her. The weather was nice, so we capped off the night with a walk from Gamla Stan to Hötorget. So clear! So warm! Nothing like moving a few degrees’ latitude north to make you appreciate the shift in seasons. If this isn’t nice, what is? But it had been a long day for me (I was up at 6 am!), so after the walk, I bowed out of drinks and went home.

There were still lots of events that I wish I had attended (concerts, primarily), but for my first year at Kulturnatt and going in completely unprepared, I had a really good time. I’ll certainly be marking my calendar for next year’s, and hopefully a little more planning means I’ll get a lot more out of it!

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth: Book Review

An appropriate book choice with Easter coming up!

I’ve been vaguely aware of Reza Aslan for a few years now, as he seems to do the news and talk show circuit fairly regularly, so I was glad that my Facebook book club brought Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth to my attention. Aslan seemed just the person to provide a popular history of the life of Jesus Christ.

Cover of Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"
Image courtesy Random House

Author: Reza Aslan

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.83

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: The historical background and context for the birth of Christianity

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in history, politics, or sociology

In-depth thoughts: Whenever I rate a nonfiction book 5 stars on GoodReads, it indicates a book that I think the general public should read. A nonfiction book needs to meet three requirements to get 5 stars from me:

  1. The writing needs to be engaging and accessible. If it’s a not book that’s fun, or at least easy, to read, then I’ll be hard pressed to give it a full 5 stars. Since this requirement is a judgment call, it’s the one I’m most flexible about.
  2. The topic matter needs to be presented clearly and logically, so that after finishing the book I feel like I understand something better than I did before, or that I know more than I did before. You can’t just list a bunch of dry facts, or a collection of charming anecdotes, and call your book done; there has to be a structure and logical sequence that scaffolds ideas and builds on them so that readers retain what they’ve learned long after the end of the chapter, or the book.
  3. The topic matter needs to be something of extremely timely and relevant public interest. A solid resource for specialists in a field, no matter how excellent a resource, isn’t necessarily something the general public will find relevant or interesting, or even need to know.

Zealot hits all three of these sweet spots: it’s engaging reading, it’s chock-full of information that’s presented clearly and logically, and it’s on a topic that’s very much relevant today.

That said, as a book for English students, Zealot might be a reach. There’s a lot of specific and particular terms needed to discuss Roman history and Jewish history; if you’re not comfortable with the rest of the language in the book, it might feel too difficult or specialized to really get a grip on. On the other hand, if you’re already an ancient history buff, you’ll probably feel right at home.

Friday 5: Games People Play

A young white boy in a red shirt is about to pull out a Jenga piece from a tower.

How good are you at word games, and what’s a word game you really enjoy?

I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at these, but I haven’t played any except Scrabble, and every time I’ve played Scrabble I’ve come somewhere in the middle because someone aggressively outmaneuvered me to get to, or to block, the bonus tiles.

How good are you at trivia games, and what’s your strongest category?

It depends on the game. Like, a copy of Trivial Pursuit from thirty years ago (and I suspect that might be how old my parents’ copy of Trivial Pursuit is!) is not going to be my strong suit. Of course, there is something of a horseshoe effect with these things: there was a burger joint/diner near my college that included a handful of Trivial Pursuit: Boomer Edition cards at each table and out of my peers, I tended to clean up when it came to the arts and entertainment category, at least, just because of my movie and music taste.

But Best Chemist Friend and I were a two-woman trivia team for a while and consistently did well enough to win prizes, if not actual first place, until we got other people to join us, so I think that says it all. I don’t know what my best category would be, but without a doubt my weakest category is sports.

How good are you at spot-the-difference or what’s-wrong-with-this-picture games?

Considering that the only ones I’ve played are the super obvious ones in Highlights for Children, I don’t think I can really judge my ability based on my past experience.

How good are you at memory games, and have you ever played Simon?

Of course I’ve played Simon! But what does it mean to be good at Simon? I don’t have enough data to really say.

Otherwise I play a lot of memory with my students. Confession: in the interest of making the activity maximally educational, I deliberately throw the game whenever we play.

What’s your favorite party game of all time?

I have a couple!

Since I have an astonishing memory for song lyrics, I always really liked playing Encore!(My copy is still at my parents’ house, now that I stop to think about it. The things that slip your memory when you’re packing to move out!) I’m also preternaturally good at Tri-Bond, though I guess it’s up in the air whether that counts as a party game? The same could be said for the aggressive and competitive Munchkin series.

I’ve talked before about how much I love Dixitso that should come as no surprise. Apples to Apples is always a good time and I confess to getting a kick out of Cards Against Humanity, though when I’ve played with others there has always been the house rule that you’re allowed to discard anything you feel is beyond the realm of good taste, no questions asked.

A new favorite I’ve encountered in Sweden is Orangino, which is maybe the most Swedish party game ever developed. The whole point of the game is to determine how well others know you, and how well you can gauge other people’s perception of you. The game consists of cards with different personality traits and descriptions; you rate yourself (from 1 to 4) in secret, while everyone else does too, and people get points for matching your rating. There’s no English version as far as I can tell, which is a shame because as dorky and feel-goody as it sounds, it’s also a lot of fun! (Maybe a future translation project?)