Cut the crap

June 26, 2013 § 1 Comment

Yes, that’s right, you heard me – cut the crap. That’s what I’m tempted to say to people often when I have to persuade them that plain language is an imperative in business writing today.

It’s the biggest obstacle I face when I teach business writing – people who cling to their purple prose, complaining that plain language is dumbing things down, that their writing will lose its ‘elegance’.

The truth, however, is that most of the affectations people adopt in their writing are just that – affectations. They don’t add any value and they certainly don’t make the message clearer. Instead they often serve to confuse and cloud issues instead.

Big words and convoluted turns of phrase don’t make you sound clever. It’s not about showing off your education or your way with words. Business writing – or transactional writing, as it’s also called – is there to do a job. And your fancy phrasing is preventing it from doing that.

Trust me: plain language is always preferable to what you’ve just produced and patted yourself on the back for – that turgid email or report or presentation that’s groaning under the weight of all those meaningless buzzwords and complicated clauses. It’s elegant, it’s effective and it gets you noticed.

If you want business communication that does all that, look at that piece of writing again. Systematically weigh every word you’ve used and get rid of all the dross.

What am I trying to say? What’s the take-home message?

You’ve got it – cut the crap!

Kill the house lights

June 19, 2013 § 6 Comments

I’ve been thinking  a lot about audiences recently – not the sort you find in a theatre, but a more general concept of audience: the kind that responds to whatever it is you put out there for public consumption.

One of the things I teach my writing students is always to consider their audience, and it’s a very useful tool in transactional writing. But I’ve started wondering recently whether it’s such a good idea to consider your audience when involved with creative pursuits. When I think back on my creative writing history – which includes poetry and songwriting many moons ago, and recently, my first novel – I realise that considering my audience has severely hamstrung me.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I recently wrote my first song after a 14 year hiatus. Part of that was a sense of loss after my songwriting buddy died of cancer. Most of it, however,  was the result of me thinking about the kind of songs I’d like to write, comparing them to the songs that are played on the radio and thinking – who the hell would ever listen to my stuff? I don’t write songs about who’s doing who at the club (yo) and they’re not always about love. And that kinda cuts me out of 99% of the market.

And then my friends and I went to see Wendy Oldfield and Lionel Bastos at the Radium Beer Hall in Johannesburg. And as they began to play and sing, it was like a light went on in my head – because both of them not only have talent in bucketfuls, but they write songs. Real songs, and real music about life and love and betrayal and the world we live in and the insecurities we feel – not just who’s doing who at the club (yo).

But I think the reason I reacted so viscerally to their music, and went home beaming from ear to ear, was that I suddenly realised that not everyone is writing about who ‘s doing who… okay, I won’t say it again, but you know what I mean. There are people out there who do what they do ‘simply’ because they are artists and they are born to create. It’s not about the audience – it’s about their own need to create. (Yes, yes, I know art has to be paid for so the artist can eat, so we need audiences for that, but this is a reflection on the creative process, so allow me some airy-fairiness, please.)

In the weeks that followed, my thoughts turned to my novel, which took about three years to get to the point where I finally typed those two little words: “The End” – I’m currently working slowly on the rewrite and hope to finish before another three years pass. It should not have taken so long – there was a lot of procrastination involved. And as much as my writing teachers, Jo-Anne Richards and Richard Beynon of Allaboutwriting cajoled and persuaded and set deadlines for me, it took huge amounts of courage for me to sit down and write the damn thing. Because the thing is, whenever I considered that someone might read my novel, I froze. And the what ifs began.

What if my parents read it? There’s that sex scene… What will my husband think? My children? What if my friends don’t like it? What if no publisher ever wants to publish it? What if a publisher does publish it and it’s a flop… What if, what if, what if? But then I’d sit down, and finally start to write, and the words would just flow and I wouldn’t want to stop writing or do anything else instead of writing ever again.

And now that I’ve given myself ‘permission’ to write my songs, I don’t want to stop doing that either. Lyrics assail me in the middle of the night, or while I’m driving to fetch my kids from school; my life has become one of hastily jotted down notes and voice-noted melodies that I sing into my phone while I’m in the car. And when I finish a verse, or a chorus, or even a whole song, and I’m happy with it, the feeling is one of “of course.” I feel like I’m finally doing something I was born to do.

But  then I catch myself worrying again – it’s a constant push-pull. The lovely 88 Kilos of Sunshine has generously offered to help me make a simple recording of the song I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, and I start to panic because I can sing in tune, but I am no Singer with a capital S. And why I am worrying? Because of the people who might hear it… what if, what if, what if… The audience is encroaching on my creative process again.

And so I’ve decided to try to do what they do in theatres all around the world – seconds before the show starts, they turn off the ‘house lights’ – the lights that illuminate the theatre seating – and engulf the audience in darkness. The actors, for the most part, can’t see the audience at all. They simply create and perform in their own little bubble, in that box of light of that is the stage. And if they are good actors, they lose themselves in their roles and the plot of the play, and only remember that the audience is there when there’s applause.

That’s a metaphor that could work for me, I think. Kill the house lights please!

A sad farewell

June 12, 2013 § 9 Comments

I like to tell my family that I met Nelson Mandela once, and he said he was pleased to see me. And while that’s not untrue, it’s not the whole truth. Yes, he shook my hand, and said he was pleased to see me, but he did the same for all the other people who attended the launch of the Illustrated Long Walk to Freedom. I still have my copy and I cherish the tears in the loose cover, gained in the scuffle to touch the edge of his cloak.

And now, all these years later, he lies, frail, and probably at death’s door while the world waits to see if this will be the final hospital visit he makes.

There’s a lot been said about him out there in the past while, some of it negative, much of it laced with sadness at what is almost the end of a great life here on earth.

And while I know, intellectually, that he’s old and frail and probably more than ready to go, I confess my heart is heavy, because for me he is the quintessential symbol of the miracle that South Africa is, despite all her many flaws.

I grew up in a typical middle-class white household in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I was well-versed in the ways of apartheid and remember all its symbols well – the battered enamel crockery and mismatched cutlery that lived in the cupboard under the sink for the exclusive use of the ‘girl’ and the ‘garden boy’. The outside toilet that was slightly dark and a bit cold. And the three gentle, gracious women who helped my mother to raise me.

There was Susan, who carried me on her back while she cleaned the house, always singing as she worked. Then came Grace, who doted on the three of us as often as she admonished us sternly for any bad manners or behaviour. We worshipped her. And finally, there was Winifred, who clucked around us and became fairly messianic about high blood pressure and high cholesterol after she was diagnosed with both.

I’m ashamed to say I don’t know their real names, only the school names they were given to make life ‘easier’ for we whites who were too lazy, too superior to learn to say Lindiwe or Nokuthula or Nozibele.

I don’t recall the ideologies of apartheid being taught to me in some concerted way. Instead they were implicit in the way we lived. It seemed normal, natural back then, as much as it shames and horrifies me today. (And please don’t vilify my parents – I think the propaganda we whites were fed was far more systematic and all-pervasive than even we realised at the time.)

At the same time, however, my mother, my sister and I were very involved in Girl Guides, which was a completely non-racial organisation. I spent many weekends on very happy camps with girls of every hue and culture from all over South Africa where we were completely integrated. And I can remember thinking that they really weren’t so different from me at all, but not quite making the connection I needed to make.

When I arrived at Rhodes University in 1987 as a sheltered, idealistic 17-year-old, it was under strict instructions from my parents: get involved in politics, and your studies are over. I was always a compliant kind of person, so I complied. I honestly had never heard of Nelson Mandela or Oliver Tambo or Walter Sisulu or Steve Biko.

But while I might not have been marching or protesting on campus, I was learning, even if the lessons came much later. I didn’t think of myself as racist, but in retrospect, there’s no doubt I was. I recall a poem I wrote in my first year that fills me with shame because it was so ignorant. Suffice to say it showed just how deeply ingrained my racism was. By the time I left four years later, thankfully, I had come to my senses.

And the then the event I never thought I would witness in my lifetime happened. Nelson Mandela was released from prison and after all the negotiations of CODESA and everything that went with it,  apartheid was dismantled, at least in theory. And I honestly and truly believe now, as I did then, that it was a miracle.

I’m not naïve enough to think Mr Mandela wrought all of that alone, nor that what we have ended up with is perfect in any way. The concept of a Rainbow Nation has come under fire, but I still like the idea that we might achieve that someday. Perhaps I’m idealistic, but I can hope. The birth pangs of our new country continue, often painfully, and I suspect they will continue for some time to come. We are not yet fully born.

But Mr Mandela – in all his imperfections – through all of the ups and downs of ushering in this new era, certainly became the symbol of what could be achieved through forgiveness and the willingness to talk to each other. Criticise him all you like, but he was a great statesman and a true mensch, who made someone like me feel that I was welcome in the land of my birth, in a country I love fiercely for all of her foibles.

Did he ‘sell-out’ to accommodate white fears? I don’t know – I’m not politically astute enough to judge that objectively. But I do know that he has always seemed to carry himself with dignity, humility, kindness and humour.

I do think he is what we needed, exactly when we needed it. And I also think, as with anyone who’s at death’s door, that we should try to remember the good they have done. Because none of us is perfect, and I’m not sure I would have behaved as he did if you threw me into prison for 27 years for no good reason.

And so, Mr Mandela, I just wanted to say thank you. I, for one, am deeply grateful to you and all of those who helped you to banish apartheid from the statute books. I know we still have a long way to go in practical terms; apartheid is still with us in so many ways. I hope we will continue your legacy and build the great nation we have the potential to be.

And I hope you know just how very pleased I was on that day, both to see you, and to shake your hand. Enkosi kakhulu. Hamba kakuhle.

Statement of faith

June 5, 2013 § 10 Comments

I seldom write about issues of faith, or talk about my faith in public, not because I’m ashamed of it, but because, frankly, it’s none of your business. In fact, as I look back over the posts on this blog, I’ve only ever discussed it once, here.

So I’m not sure why I’m writing about it again, except that I felt the need to do so. I’m feeling a little pissed off about the intolerance and dogmatism I see all over the place, so I thought I’d chip in my five cents’ worth

And so, fully aware that I’m about to draw the ire of fellow Christians, atheists and assorted other people, and possibly even lose some friends, herewith my statement of faith. (Note to my evangelical friends: I’m not interested in discussing it. You may think of me as a heretic new age lost cause if you’d like to do so.)

First, I believe there’s a God, a divine source, a something out there. I don’t know what it is, I can’t prove it, and I don’t see why I should have to. It’s a matter of faith, not science, and since you can’t prove God doesn’t exist, we’re kinda even. And even though I see too much design in the universe to believe it happened by random accident, I’m also a firm supporter of evolution, not creationism. Evolution makes sense, and there’s enough evidence to support it. My view is this: God made it; I don’t really care how s/he did it.

Point 1 probably got rid of the atheists, so let’s proceed. I don’t know that Christianity is the one true faith, if there is such a thing. It happens to be the one I find myself in thanks to my upbringing, and I am grateful for that. (Had I been born in rural India, I might have been a devout Hindu.)

I’m also a Christian because it makes the least sense to me. If I’m going to believe in a god who could create the vastness and the intricate detail of the universe we live in, s/he’d better be completely incomprehensible to my tiny mind. Christianity makes no sense at all, and that works for me.

I will not be a part of faith-fuelled intolerance. I cannot bear the homophobia, racism and sexism that are so often perpetuated under the auspices of religion. Nothing makes me happier, for example, than the recent vote by the Church of Scotland to allow gay men and women to be ministers. Please, can we have more of that kind of thinking? And please don’t expect me to join in with your outrage against homosexuality in particular – we heterosexuals have a lot to learn about love from homosexual people. And love is what it’s all about – even the Beatles knew that.

Please don’t deign to tell me who/what God is – I think we all experience him/her uniquely. Even within one religion there are multiple interpretations and perspectives on scriptures and theology – and at the end of the day, again, it’s all a matter of faith. You do not know, absolutely, that you are right. And nor do I.

I will never Bible-bash you, and I’d thank you not to do the same to me. Likewise, if you are agnostic or atheist, I respect your right to be either or both of those things. Live long and prosper, just please be polite.

Finally, I will judge your faith – or lack thereof – by the kind of person you are. Are you kind? Are you gentle? Do you treat others with respect? Are you tolerant of others’ viewpoints? Do you help people who need help, even if it’s just a tiny gesture? Or are you so wrapped up in your need to tell people that your religious viewpoint is right and theirs is wrong, that you can’t see the person beyond the potential proselyte?

Because at the end of the day, in my view, that’s what counts – people and the way we treat them. If you are using your faith to treat other people badly, then I’m afraid you’re doing your version of God a great disservice.

So there you have it. I confess I wrote this in anger – not at anyone specific; it’s just the culmination of things I’ve seen here and there, and I felt I needed to get it off my chest.

Join me now, as we sing Kumbaya.

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