Category Archives: Uncategorized

writing anxiety – one step at a time

I know a number of people who are too hard on themselves when it comes to, well, pretty much everything. Perfectionism has its place, and can produce fantastic results as long as it’s a drive forward and not an impediment to progress. The key is figuring out how to apply it sparingly.

Some perfectionists have anxiety around writing because it’s so very big. It’s overwhelming to know that there are probably 30 things that “need to be better” about one’s writing. When I was teaching high school, I attended a workshop that was designed to help us teach our students to be better writers. The English teachers who led the workshop advocated an organized, compartmentalized approach to improving writing skills. They suggested that we announce one or two criteria that we want to focus on for each assignment, make sure the students understand the expectations well, and grade only on those criteria. With each new assignment, the students are responsible for the previous criteria and one or two new ones. Of course, if they have a chance to get feedback on drafts and to rewrite, they should be held accountable for the totality of their work. This approach was meant more for quick daily assignments, essays on tests that they take in class, etc.

I think that a lot of adults who are inhibited by anxiety and perfectionism would do well to apply this strategy to their own writing. Continue reading

annihilate, decimate, and our many other words for destruction

Is there such a thing as a synonym? I seem to remember a character in Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume arguing passionately that there is not, that each word in English has its own distinct meaning and proper usage. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do think that the beauty of English, as big and messy as it is, lies in having so many options and striving to choose exactly the right one for what you want to express.

For example, I hear annihilate and decimate used interchangeably, but they actually have substantially different meanings. Annihilate has the Latin root nihil (“nothing”) while decimate has the Latin root decimus (“tenth”). So to annihilate something is to reduce it to nothing; to decimate is to reduce either by 10% or to 10% of the original amount, depending on how much of a stickler one wants to be to the original meaning. The term originates in the Roman practice of punishing mutineers by killing one in ten among their ranks, but I’ve almost always heard it used to mean “to reduce by a significant amount.” It’s been used that way since the 1600s, and it’s in the OED, so it’s fine by me.

In any case, one can decimate an army, or a town, or a pie, but not, strictly speaking, an opponent at Scrabble. Though maybe one could decimate an opponent’s pride?

We have so many ways to express different shades of destruction. Destroy in fact has a sense of building in its root (Latin struo, struere, struxi, structus: “to put together, pile up, build”), like its antonym construct. Demolish has this sense, too, from Latin molior, moliri: “to build, erect, work at.” The de- prefix is just motion downwards.

Obliterate contains the Latin word littera (“letter”), giving it a literal meaning (ha!) of something like “against the letters” (the ob- prefix is often difficult to render into English), hence “to blot out, wipe out, or cancel,” as one would debts, and from there “to destroy” in the sense of “to erase from memory.” Our delete has the same root and similar original meaning.

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Tony Porter on the collective socialization of men

via Shakesville, a moving speech by Tony Porter on violence against women and social constructions of manhood. I’m so grateful for men doing work like this. We need more of them.

Shakesville has a full transcript at the link above.

maintaining privilege

Those who benefit from systems of privilege and oppression must work constantly to maintain them, since there are so many people out there working constantly to dismantle them. A few examples of efforts to maintain these systems, albeit with relatively minor gestures, jumped out at me in the last few days.

As Think Progress reports, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) was on Fox News this week to discuss his refusal to attend an annual seasonal parade in Tulsa because organizers had decided to replace the word “Christmas” in the title with “Holiday,” now calling it the “Holiday Parade of Lights.”  Although Inhofe had participated in the parade for 30 years, he sees this name change as enough of a reason to stay home.

During the interview, Inhofe states, “I think there are a lot people of other faiths who wonder also, why do they always pick on the Christians?” (you can watch a video at the link above). I do understand how it feels when one’s privilege is threatened, but trying to pass one’s own concern off on “a lot of people of other faiths” is pretty offensive, especially given the history of oppression and aggression committed by people in the name of Christianity.

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NPR covers teen trafficking in Oakland, CA

Luke alerted me to this highly disturbing and informative piece on NPR from a few days ago: Trafficked Teen Girls Describe Life In ‘The Game’. It’s a two-part series produced by Youth Radio that details the experiences of a number of girls who have been involved in sex trafficking in Oakland, CA. The second part focuses on the ongoing efforts to arrest these girls for prostitution and includes criticism of that tactic.

For more information on domestic human trafficking and efforts to address it, particularly in Colorado, check out Prax(us), an organization that “uses a community engagement model intended to empower participants, advocate for equal rights, and address the root causes of human trafficking.” I know people who work for Prax(us) and can vouch for the important work they do, so if you’re inspired to do something and are in a good place financially, please consider contributing to their work.

places to go 12.2.10

• Apparently, for only one species of praying mantis (out of over 2000), the female has to remove the head of the male in order to mate properly. But the myth lives on! Sociological Images considers the problem with the post Shoddy Research & Cultural Tropes: the Praying Mantis.

If You’re Black in Philly, Every Day is a TSA Day. For some of us, the new TSA regulations are the first time we’ve had to seriously worry about our bodily integrity being violated by the authorities. For others, it’s a daily concern.  —(via Racialicious)

• Via Lindsay S., a satisfying take-down of a piece in the New York Times by a blogger for NPR: Please, PLEASE, No More Trend Pieces About Women Based On ‘Sex And The City’.

• Lena Chen has a post about shifting definitions of virginity here.

“When I say that there is no such thing as virginity, I’m not trying to dump on what other people “believe”, but I am saying that they’re wrong in thinking that virginity is anything more than an idea. And this is simply an objective observation based on the economic, religious, medical, and socio-legal function that virginity has served in Western society. And if more people start to come to this conclusion, perhaps they’ll ask themselves how they can put so much stock into something that is defined differently across history?”

having a goat under your arm (and other animal expressions)

I’ve recently come across a number of humorous expressions involving animals and thought I should share. The textbook we use in my German class gives the following:

  • Schwein haben : “to be lucky” (literally “to have a pig”)
  • einen Vogel haben : “to be crazy” (literally “to have a bird”)
  • einen Kater haben : “to have a hangover” (literally “to have a tomcat”)

My favorite animal expression in English is “I’m on it like a duck on a junebug” (thanks, David Lynch). The expression “let the cat out of the bag” has always mystified me. A friend has a good story about the term “pussy-footing”– but I won’t tell it for her. I also adore “happy as a pig in a ditch” and “that really gets my goat.” Continue reading

places to go 11.29.10

• I enjoyed this story about appreciating what children have to offer even though they might annoy us a lot of the time: For Granted.

• From The Times of India, Indian-American Hindu group stirs a debate over yoga’s soul: I don’t know much about yoga, admittedly, but I’ve wondered about the appropriative nature and potential cultural insensitivity in the way many US-ians practice it. This article seems to do a good job of laying out one debate on the topic. — (via Racialicious)

• A rant titled Dear bigoted, privileged assholes from Jen, a self-identified “humourless, harpy feminist”—(via Womanist Musings)

• Also via Womanist Musings, this post answers the question, Why don’t women just leave abusers? [trigger warning for partner abuse and assault]

• If you missed the hubbub about’s most recent indication (unless they’ve done something worse in the last week) that they really aren’t a feminist space, the Sexual Assault and Prevention Center has a post about it here: Oh, Jezebel. I, for one, am no longer reading Jezebel, period. I should have made that call a while ago.—(via Tiger Beatdown)

• And, from Racialicious, two posts that each link two areas of culture: Overcoming the Noble Savage & the Sexy Squaw: Native Steampunk and Les Sapeurs: Gentlemen Of The Congo (on Congolese dandyism).

writing anxiety – your writing is terrible sometimes and that’s okay

I used to have a lot of anxiety around writing. When I had a writing assignment for school I’d get so anxious that I’d put it off until the last hour or so before class, then sit down and in a fury just write the paper straight through, beginning to end. I think it had to do with fear of trying and failing—if I actually worked hard on something and didn’t do it right, that would crush me. But if I dashed it off at the last minute and just hoped for the best, I had an excuse ready for myself if it were less than stellar.

Eventually I realized I was doing myself a disservice by producing below my real ability level. I started to be able to be proud of my own work, to look at something I’d created and feel good about the actual product and not just the grade attached to it.

Thinking about the way I had learned to approach art helped too. When I was younger, I had similar anxiety around art until I learned, by studying bodies of work by famous artists, that it’s okay if 9 out of 10 things I drew were utter crap. It’s all a learning process, and it’s ridiculous to think that everything that drifts out of my hand is going to be meaningful and new and beautiful. If I could fill sketchbooks with junk and look back through them and shrug it off, why couldn’t I do this with writing?

For a lot of people writing is not just a specific skill, like painting with watercolors, or throwing a football, or singing, about which one can say, “Oh, I just never learned how to do that,” or “I tried but I’m just not good at it—oh well.” Rather, writing seems like a window directly into a person’s mind. We think we can look at someone’s writing and tell how intelligent they are, what kind of education they’ve had, and how successful they might be in life. Unlike a face-to-face conversation, in writing we can’t read the other person’s reaction and clarify as we go.

It’s unnerving to put a snapshot of your mind out there for others’ judgment. We probably all know someone who gives unwelcome grammar advice in a mocking tone or cuts down others’ writing not for their ideas but for the “errors” in the way they present them. This post, Why I’m Not Proud of You for Correcting Other People’s Grammar, from a blog called (appropriately for our topic today) Shitty First Drafts, does a great job of addressing this behavior. The author says, “I equate it to going around at a party criticizing everyone’s food and drink selection. No one likes that guy. We edge away from him and talk about him behind his back. Like food selections at parties, speech patterns are both a function of personal taste and what’s available to us. Not only is grammar correcting just plain rude, it’s soaked in classism, regional chauvinism, and privilege.”

Writing is a skill, just like skiing or playing the trombone, and it takes practice. Practice usually looks ugly. We trip and fall down the mountain, we hit a flat note and can’t take it back. It should be just as excusable to do this in writing as it is in any other human endeavor.

I should say here that Natalie Goldberg’s work, particularly Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, has had by far the largest positive influence on my writing process, and that she is emphatic that we must embrace the fact that most of what we make is going to be somewhere between mediocre and terrible. She suggests keeping all of your writing practice in its original form in a journal or notebook (as opposed to using loose-leaf paper, for instance) as a reminder of this fact. Rather than erasing parts and fixing them, she advocates keeping it all and just starting over if you want to rework an idea.

Now, rather than crushing anxiety, I just have a little jolt of dread when I think about putting my writing out in the world.  I can brush that aside though, and just put it out there anyway.


Yesterday I gave a presentation on satyrs, focusing mainly on their representation on Greek vases. People now tend to think of satyrs as goat from the waist down and man from the waist up, but that’s a Roman idea.

Greeks usually depicted satyrs very much like human men but with a horse tail and pointy ears. Music is very important to satyrs.

satyr with tortoise shell lyre

A satyr with a tortoise-shell lyre

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