[Return to Home Page]
Feedback on 'Mundane and Metaphor'
Leanne Frahm (October 1998)
Your essay on writing and language made interesting - and revealling - reading. If you asked me for my advice (which you didn't, but to maintain the Matriarchal facade ..., I'm going to give it anyway) on your writing, I'd say, "Stop striving." In other words, be yourself. As soon as you start trying for an effect, no matter which end of the ribbon it is, writing becomes self- conscious and stilted. you are your own effect; there is a Michael F. Green style within you. Let him loose.
I enjoyed the story and essay that you included in this issue. Not that I'm anyone to judge, but I found your prose far from banal - concise, yes, lucid, yes, but banal, no. if this is typical of your output the person who told you that it was "ordinary, dull and unmemorable" should be taken out and shot. There is more to poetry than flowery phrases, and more to good writing than fancy word games [...] In perfecting the art of balanced writing, you have not assassinated your poetic muse, but refined it. Poetry is about using the words in exactly the right places, and reading your essay I found there is something poetic about it. Look inside yourself and see what you can find.
As for science writing being boring, there's a lot of very well written, engaging science writing around, but not much of it is in the learned journals. I am told that some journals have improved a lot since I was paying attention to them (over 20 years ago now), but they're probably still in the minority. On the occasions when I teach writing or editing to scientists, this is usually a topic of conversation (which they bring up) - they want to write in a less turgid style, but they don't think they'll be taken seriously if they do. A revolution is needed!
Must admit that most scientific papers are boring, but as long as universities expect passive terms and so on, it won't change. I wonder if you have [read] any of the popular works by some well known scientists of past centuries? I was thinking of Huxley, or Faraday's Chemical History of a Candle Flame.
I find myself agreeing with you over and over without being able to add much to what you say. The deadly boredom of schooldays, for instance. Surely I could have got through all the early stuff in a few years, then sunk my teeth into interesting work. (It was a bit of a shock when in Form 5 (today's Year 11) I had to begin studying conscientiously in order to pass exams.
I was pretty good at academic literary and historical essays by the time I finished Third Year at University, but had to relearn to write when I began to write for fanzines. Mentors such as John Foyster and George Turner taught me that it was possible to say things clearly without using clotted language. No wonder current academic theoretical writing, especially in what is called 'Cultural Studies', seems to me treason against the English language itself. I feel the same way about much poetry, but occasionally find poets such as Philip Hodgins, whose work shows absolute clarity yet great flexibility and beauty.
The only reason to write is because you have something to say, then find the right form, then the right words to say it. People still say 'I'd rather like to write' without having any sense of what they must write. Since I have no sense of a necessity to write fiction, I don't. But I still have some essays I want to write; now it's a matter of finding the time to do the research.
I'm not sure that I can agree with your statement that "science aims to nail down truth." I see science as more an exercise in trying to build models that assist our understanding of natural phenomena. Truth is something best left to philosophers. I see a continual refining of models, and the occasional wholesale abandonment of models - what has been referred to as paradigm shift. What you refer to as "universal laws" I see as our attempt to impose order and patterns. There's no real reason why naming objects makes a difference. Indeed, the idea that everything should have a unique name, if carried to its logical conclusion, would cause chaos - we give foot bones a group name to classify them - but that's a result of the scientific philosophy. In practice I am just as "truthful" if I give my foot bone its own unique name that denies any connection with anyone else's [foot bone]. Science uses words to annex objects into its own domain, words that are, at the same time, part of the guild lexicon, to keep the commoners out of science. It's not as simple as scientific language being an objective thing - it has its own resonances and implicit assumptions.
How do you reintegrate a muse? I have enough trouble differentiating muses. Calculus never was my strong suit.
I loved your piece of the Ribbon of Extremes. What you need, of course, is to take the best from both ends, to integrate with the best of the middle, for a result that holds gleams from the whole length of the ribbon.
I certainly agree with you about the obfuscation that is so damned prevalent in academic writing (it doesn't have to be scientific). I have been reminded of just how difficult a subject can be made now that Womble is doing this course at UTS. All too often the concepts themselves are relatively simple but are buried beneath a mountain of verbiage.
CT MICHAEL GREEN: "I'm not sure I can agree with your statement that 'science aims to nail down truth'." Well, I think science finds it's own version of truth, philosophers discover their truth, and so on.
I reply (April 1999):
Re: 'I'm not sure I can agree with your statement that "Science aims to nail down truth." Well, I think science finds its own version of truth, philosophers discover their truth, and so on.
I'll have to write an article about the 'Philosophy of Truth' to make these matters clearer.
I really enjoy reading your thoughts - they're enlightening as well as well written. Your comments about scientific papers reminded me of historical journals. In my first year training our main history essay was not on an historical event but rather on how the historians debated an issue stemming from an event. I couldn't believe that we would be asked to examine how established historians went about their craft - who did our lecturers think we were? Well, after spending hours in the stacks at Monash (naturally we couldn't borrow most of the sources) I became not only disillusioned by the petty, childish arguments, but downright angry. Well, I got stuck into them. After I handed in the essay, I became concerned that I may have been too critical. After all I was not long out of high school and they were published and respected historians. I was so relieved when the lecturers told us they enjoyed our essays precisely because we'd done what they'd hoped - looked critically at the essays, not allowing their reputations to cloud our judgement. It was exactly what they wanted.
Copyright © 2002 by Michael F. Green and others. All rights reserved.
Last Updated: 10 November 2002