Losing our Letters

Amazing as it may seem to many of us now, human beings wrote letters to each other before the arrival of electronic mail. My mother did. Along with her letters (sometimes typed on a typewriter, sometimes in longhand), she sent me clippings from another print medium that is in jeopardy—the local newspaper. She sent clippings about my high school friends, the moose are taking over Anchorage, Alaska, and other noteworthy items. She was a lifelong and consistent correspondent, and thus a dinosaur. Her Christmas cards arrived a month in advance. God bless her for it. But there are a few far younger “dinosaurs” out there, including one of my students who hates email and cherishes letter writing (“my correspondence,” as she affectionately calls it).

  What do we lose when we exchange email—or incessant cell phone chatter—for the sending and receiving of letters? We all know what we gain from email and cell phones—speed of communication, instant access, and more. But what features of a good life do we forfeit in the process? As with all communicative technology, there is a trade-off between gains and losses.

  For one thing, we tend to replace reflection with rapidity. Email is fast, very fast—and often, too fast. No intermediary object is required for an email. We type letters on a screen and launch them into cyberspace. With letters, we must inscribe symbols onto a page, a distinct physical object that takes up space and which has a marked history of its own. Writing by hand takes time, and is, therefore, inefficient given contemporary quantitative standards. However, the time and effort is takes to write a letter demands a slower pace and allows for more deliberation on what one is writing. In days of yore, many a letter was written only to be torn up and thrown out because one thought better of it. Or perhaps it was tucked away as memorabilia.

  In an email age and texting age we may be losing a literary fixture: the collection of noteworthy people’s correspondence, as The New York Times noted in Rachel Donadio’s essay, “Literary Letters, Lost in Cyberspace” (September 4, 2005). I have read books made up of the letters of C. S. Lewis (who was always in good form), Francis Schaeffer (the consummate thinking pastor), and others. It is not unusual to find the letters of literary figures or philosophers, such as Bertrand Russell, bound for posterity or included in biographies. The letters between painter Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, released in 2006, are voluminous, and worthy of some reflection—even though neither was known for their writing. This is explored in Letters Like the Day by Jennifer Sinor.

  “Men of letters” were almost invariably men (or women) of letters. Letters of note tended to be saved or duplicated. Emails, on the other hand, are so multitudinous and so disposable (click or “oops!”), that often they are not translated into a more permanent form. (Digital storage is less permanent and more fragile than paper, since it often decays, is fragmented, or becomes unreadable due to new software. I took this up in The Soul in Cyberspace way back in 1997).

  Letters carry the literal touch of the person who wrote them. Even a typed letter is signed. It is crowned by the signature: one’s own name in one’s own hand. If a letter is handwritten, the sign of the personal is made more manifest. In writing a letter recently (a rarity, I admit), I realized that I seldom write by hand more than a few sentences at a time, usually on my student’s papers. Besides that, I may make a list (for shopping items or articles due to editors), check boxes for various purposes, or fill out forms. My handwriting is not superior. I do not write cursively. I print. It is slow and cumbersome. I must work at making my inscriptions legible. Nevertheless, our handwriting—heavenly or ghastly or somewhere in between—is our creation, the inscription of our identity placed on receptive material. We may choose the type of pen, color of ink (or inks), and make idiosyncratic notations. Yes, email gives us a plethora of choices, such as fonts, emojis  (now animated), text size, pasting photographs, and so on, but these are pre-selected for us by others. They are not created by us specifically for another. The manner of writing itself—apart from its overt intellectual content—may be revealing. A good friend of mine told me that her mother discerned the disheveled state of her soul not by the content of her writing, but by the contours of her handwriting.

  Simply because letters are irrepressibly personal, most of us still get a small thrill from finding a letter in our mail box addressed to us in handwriting, and not machine produced. These letters often have a telltale thickness, indicating that it houses several pages, folded and written by human hands. Perhaps we should send and receive fewer emails, yell into the cell less often, and instead give and receive the small but tangible joy a letter can afford. Perhaps—to consider something quite radical for most—we should even work on our penmanship as a way of working on our relationships. Perhaps.

Tales of Plagiarism

The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. Recorded from the early 17th century, the word comes from Latin plagiarius ‘kidnapping’—Oxford online dictionary.

The eighth of God’s Ten Commandments is “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). The ninth is, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Lives well lived under God avoid theft and lies. Virtuous people honor others’ right to their property and strive for veracity over mendacity in their words. Plagiarism violates both the eighth and ninth commandments, as well as being driven by what the tenth commandment forbids as well—covetousness. Incidentally, the penalty for kidnapping, which is the Latin root for plagiarism, under the Mosaic law was death (Exodus 21:16).

God alone knows all the word kidnappings that have occurred under the sun, but professors and writers have their tales of plagiarism. So, I will tell of a few—none of which are tall, all of which are true, and all of which are told in my words. 

My school and many others use a technology for detecting plagiarism in student papers called Turnitin. Their motto is  “Education with Integrity. Your culture of academic integrity begins with Turnitin.” I thought it began with honesty, but we’ll let that go for now. This digital conscience arose with the opportunities for plagiarism in the online word. Plagiarism required more work before the Internet—reading books and copying by hand what they said. Now it is so simple: cut, paste, arrange. Thus, the technologies fight each other, as they often do. 

I don’t bother with Turnitin. I tell my students at Denver Seminary that they are Christian adults who should not cheat. And if they do, God will get them. I have not used it at other schools, but I did detect a blatant example a few year ago while at Metro State University teaching Introduction to Ethics (how fitting).

The paper began with barely intelligible prose. That was enough for an F. He said that he was a moral relativist because he was a Christian. That, too, was enough to merit an F, but it got better/worse. The next two pages defended relativism in clear (if unconvincing) philosophical prose. I entered a few of these oddly placed sentences into Google and found the material at an atheistic web page. Plagiarism merits an F as well, so this paper was an F-cubed. In other words, its failure was overdetermined. It was a kind of perverse achievement in academic ineptitude. Poor soul.

As I was reading a paper written for me at Denver Seminary, I thought, “This is good. I really agree with this….Oh, this is me!” The benighted student has copied two pages from my vastly ignored book, The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker, 1997) verbatim and without attribution. A tense discussion with the student followed. He uttered excuses, but no apologies.

Some books supposedly written by Christian celebrities are not written by them, but by unnamed authors. Ghost writing is common and not a few publishing houses are haunted. A man once confessed (although I don’t think he felt guilty) that he had written a book for a well-known Christian personality with no little social clout. I challenged his ethics. He was paid for his work, he said, and the practice was common. The same could be said for mercenaries and hit men.

I was once asked to write a book for a famous Christian “author.” Of course, this is, strictly speaking, impossible. You cannot author a book you do not write. The rationale was that the author was busy with other things and more people would read it with his or her name on the cover than with someone else’s name (the real author) on the cover. I was not enlisted to this cause, suffice to say, since I am not a utilitarian.

One could go on, but I give one more personal anecdote. I received an email from someone asking me to look over a manuscript which the author hoped I would co-write with him. Although the book was not under contract, the wily fellow had gotten (or pretended to get) several notable authors to endorse his writing. I wished the man well but declined since I was too busy with other projects to consider co-writing a book. He responded by assuring me that he did not expect me to write anything. I could simply add my name as an author! That would be good for me, for him, and the Kingdom of God, of course. I don’t know what happened to his manuscript.

I said that plagiarism breaks (at least) three of the Ten Commandments: not to steal, not to bear false witness, and not to covet. But can I plagiarize myself by reproducing my writing from one venue in another venue without saying so? I take it that I cannot steal from myself, since I have a right to dispose of my own property as I wish (within moral and legal limits). However, if I repeat writing done for one publication in another publication without mentioning this, I am, in a sense, lying, since the assumption by the reader is that this is new material. However, one might argue that if it was first published on your blog, it doesn’t count as being published or that you have reworked the material considerably, so the original source need not be mentioned. Well, maybe. While writing Walking through Twilight, my editor noted that some of what I wrote had appeared on my obscure blog years earlier. Apparently, they have Turnitin or something equivalent. Thus, a footnote was added. I get the point. (Now it would have been worse if I had cribbed something I wrote from a periodical that paid me for my work and which held the copyright.)

Other authors have been more egregious in self-plagiarizing. I know of an apologetics book that was lifted almost entirely from a book previously published by the author. (I don’t mean that the same ideas were rewritten. That is fine. I mean that they were copied word-for-word.) No mention was made of this. The implication is that someone—me in his case—could buy the derivative book without knowing of this duplication. If so, the buyer would be defrauded, since the presumption is that a book is made up of new material, unless otherwise stated.

Self-plagiarism, it seems, breaks the commands not to lie and not to covet. An author republishes himself without telling the reader because he wants more recognition, or more money, or both. By giving the wrong impression about the newness of the material, the author is lying. While breaking two of the Ten Commandments at once isn’t as bad as breaking three at once, it is still morally wrong in my book. And as James warns us, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). 

A question of identity remains, however. If I copy word-for-word from an unacknowledged source (my own or another’s), that is plagiarism. But what if I appeal more to the spirit of the original source, and not the word? If my source is not my own previous writing, it should be referenced (unless it is common knowledge). However, if I am reiterating my own ideas that have been previously published, I don’t take the standard to be quite as high. We all repeat ourselves, so we don’t have to say, “As I said before…” all the time.

God calls us all to be above reproach as truth tellers (Ephesians 4:15). That is the highest standard. May we not sink below it through plagiarism, no matter how popular or common it might be. 

26 Tips to Writing Badly

Writing badly comes naturally to most, but these tips will help you become awesome in your epic badness.

  1. Don’t proofe read .
  2. Who cares what the difference is between a semicolon and a comma?
  3. Use common terms over and over, such as “great,” “nice,” “awesome.”
  4. End a paragraph whenever the mood strikes you.
  5. Ignore word limits. Express yourself as need be.
  6. Don’t read “gifted” or “classic” writers who have endured through history. It might rub off on you.
  7. Write with many distractions going on around you. It helps you be creative. (I hear that this helps people with ADD, though.)
  8. Only fulminating fussbudgets care about the difference between em-dashes and hyphens. Innovate – yeah…
  9. Never risk going over people’s heads when you write. Go for the lowest common denominator—or lower.
  10. Use worn out, cliché phrases. First and foremost, everybody is used to them, so it’s cool.
  11. Mix metaphors. Everybody does it.

    In “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” Bryan A. Garner offers this classic example of a mixed metaphor from a speech by Boyle Roche in the Irish Parliament:

    “Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud.”

    Isn’t that cool?

  12. Capitalization is UP to You. Don’t fuss over any Rules in the matter.
  13. Never consult style or grammar guides. Why cramp your expressive style with stupid rules? Instead read cool books about the new uses of language, which have been marinated in the internet.
  14. creative. with. periods. W.h.y. n.o.t??!!…
  15. Use commas, or, not. Up to you.
  16. Being fussy over complete sentences is a sign of anal-retentive fascism. Keep your grammar out of my bedroom!
  17. Imho, use text talk in writing, lol. U r entitled to it. K?
  18. Always be breezy, never serious, cuz, like, why be inhibited?
  19. Instead of finding the right work combination to articulate an idea, use extra punctuation!!! Why not??
  20. Throw in quotation marks “randomly” to express a knowing skepticism for no reason.
  21. Read Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. Do everything he says not to do.
  22. Embrace obfuscation.
  23. For all intensive purposes, don’t fuss over getting sayings right. It will wreck havoc on your style and undermine the tenants of your writing.
  24. Never turn in a paper to Douglas Groothuis or any other curmudgeon who insists on obeying rules, developing an elegant style, or mastering documentation. These people are so 1970s!!! lol; omg.
  25. Any noun can be verbed. Example: The Governor smokescreened that issue.
  26. Boldface whenever you There are no, like, rules.

Looking Back to an Old Typewriter

What difference might a typewriter make on one’s writing style; might it even affect one’s thinking itself? We are what we write, and how we write is shaped by the device on which we write. Consider Nicholas Carr’s reflections on Nietzsche’s use of a primitive typewriter.

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.” (The Atlantic, July/August 2008).

            Selectric is the name of an IBM electronic typewriter that awkwardly sits on a table in what should be the dining room. When I type, I hear the sounds of inscription. I see the words appear in front of me on a real sheet of paper. The touch is lighter than on a manual typewriter, but it is percussive. It pounds the letters into place and moves on. It is like playing drums and writing at the same time, although there is no steady beat. Maybe it is more like avant-garde drumming.

Machines like this are not easily portable. They are connected to nothing outside of their power cord. They are not made anymore, like the Hammond B-3 organ. Every major jazz organist plays a B-3. How many writers use an electric typewriter? Some still use manual models, which I learned from the delightful film, “California Typewriter.”

The Selectric was famous for being a dependable and correctible typewriter. A little key allowed you to backspace to a mistake and then strike the errant letter, which was (somewhat) erased. Then you typed the proper letter. Bad typists like me appreciated that.

Unmasking the New Age (1986), my first book, was half written on an early computer and half written on a Selectric that someone had rented for me. I wrote several other articles and reviews on the Selectric as well. But after getting my now extinct Kay-pro, the great beast was forgotten and all was written on computer—until I spotted a garage sale in my neighborhood. That is when the Selectric came back into my life.

Kaiser-Permanente will likely be stunned when they receive a typewritten letter from me protesting their decision not to cover a medical test. But mostly, I sidle up to the hulking black box to write letters to friends. So far, no recipients have complained. Some have applauded. None have typewritten back.

The Selectric selects the way I write. Corrections are not easily made. So, I think more before I write. Deleting a whole sentence is not easily done. I have not returned to the world of white out, a substance with which I never made piece. I think some of it from decades ago is still under my finger nail. If I must delete a lot, I strike through with dashes. That is ugly, but gritty. Tom Hanks types this way on his manuals; so I can, too. Knowing that I can resort to grittiness frees me from fear of error. Typing forbids you to move text around—something that is second nature to us now. You are committed to a sequence. If I want to return to a topic from several topics ago, I have to bring it up again. This is a little more like a conversation than typing on a computer, where cutting and pasting (to hark back to a literal practice) is simple.

My Selectric also has sentimental value. The muscle memory comes back. I think of typing out my lecture outlines for my class, “The Twilight of Western Thought,” when I worked in campus ministry from 1979-84 at the University of Oregon. I think of short essays I wrote to my fiancé, Becky Merrill, one of which was on the ontology of kissing. That has, tragically, been lost to history (I think).

I won’t be sending publishers any hard copy written on a typewriter. My black beauty does not have spell check. Nor can it insert links. Adding footnotes would be annoying. I remember those dark days. I won’t lug my typewriter into the office and then back home again. It is more of a fixture and part of my house. However, I would gladly have one in my office if could procure another good one at a decent price.

Perhaps I gave hypergraphia—at least a mild case—but I don’t suffer from it. I live it. When a colleague mentioned my productivity amidst the misery of living through my wife’s dementia, I replied, “I write in order to survive.” I write about many topics on various devices. Each device—computer, typewriter, pen and ink—shapes how I write. Perhaps that is worth pondering, since words will last forever and cannot finally be taken back.

 

 

Let Books be Books

Many books today seem afraid to rely on pure text. They are books that seem to be embarrassed to be what they are: books, that is, orderly collections of words formed into sentences and paragraphs.

Too many books are filled with one-sentence paragraphs (usually a sign of poor style and impatience), call-outs that repeat what is in smaller print elsewhere on the page (annoying), stand-alone call-outs with little connection to the flow of the text. I find disorienting. When do I read these rude interruptions? That is their context? We also find lists, bullet points (the bane of orderly discourse, but the balm of PowerPoint), and font variations. They are more like the children’s books of old.

This is enough to send me screaming to acres and acres of pure, small, hard text: Augustine’s The City of God or any book by Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky or even Being and Nothingness by Sartre! (But Heidegger’s Being and Time…don’t go there, although I own it.) These books require concentration, fixation, and focus. One cannot breeze through them. These works have heft; they must be mastered; they cannot be skimmed. I say: Let books be books!

DG CONTRIBUTOR PROFILE

Notes on Writing Cards

1. Use your own handwriting. Chose a tasteful pen. Write slowly.

2. Write for consolation, encouragement, or to share you life with a close friend. Or write strangers whose work you appreciate. I often write musicians, authors, business owners, and others. They almost never write back. The exception is Peter Brötzmann.

3. Ponder and pray before you write. Why be in a hurry? This is not the Internet.

4. Perhaps adorn the card with stickers or your own drawings. There was a “letter art” movement decades ago. We should restart it.

5. Although I always want my cards to be reciprocated in some way, I almost always write more than I am written to–at least since my mother died. If someone never writes back after two or three cards, I usually give up.

6. Be creative in conveying truth and love in this way. It can mean much to many. I know.