Last week my twitter timeline was buzzing with a thought-provoking Medium article by Adam J Calhoun on the punctuation in novels.
Inspired by these visual poems that result from extracting the words from classic works of literature, he compared the punctuation patterns of some his favorite books. Two end members were Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner.
Not surprisingly, the former was period-dominated and the latter comma- and semicolon-dominated, with dash of parentheses. Both have a fair number of question marks as well.
He didn’t stop there.
There are great statistics in the post, like the frequency of each punctuation mark and the number of words per sentence. After he’d written the code to transform text into a sequence of commas, semicolons, exclamation points, quotation marks, and parentheses, the delight in comparing various novels from different authors and time periods (and even the beginning and ending of the same novel as shown on his blog) was probably hard to resist.
Do go read the Medium piece, if somehow you managed to miss it.
The article isn’t just fascinating, the resulting punctuation sequences are truly beautiful.
They look like an alien language of sorts.
Style contributes undoubtedly to the punctuation maps. That includes convention: whether one use single- or double-apostrophes for quotations in fiction or dashes. And language itself matters, as commas are more common in Spanish and French than in English. One wonders about non-fiction and technical writing. In the latter, clarity aims to prevail over style—message over form.
But the punctuation sequences made me think about what isn’t there: the words.
Punctuation provides the guardrails for words, the traffic signs for the circulation of written language. But how determining is it?
When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger, who, as you discover, has your fate in his hands. He is perhaps a demon or a god in disguise, offering you a chance at either the fulfillment of a dream or a trap for the soul. A comic element—the soprano arrives in the wrong dress—and it decides her fate.
Have I mentioned how much I love this book?
Stripping away the words we have:
, , , , , , , . , . — — .
The marks left on wet beach-sand by a small bird hopping.
A hidden message. A vessel for words.
Using the same punctuation we have:
It was a dark day filled with portents, omens, sealed closed to those who rushed past without seeing, but open to those who wouldn’t turn away, who couldn’t be distracted, at the all the signs, the clues, at all that still remained to be unveiled. For she already knew, it was the end. The story was already told—in strokes of punctuation—that echoed as drumbeats in the silence.
But we also have:
Take a basket of apples, a bowl of walnuts, the gratings of nutmeg to dust the surface two times over, four cinnamon sticks, the zest and juice of a ripe lemon, still warm from the tree, two fists of crinkled cranberries, and three glass-fulls of brown sugar. This is key for that which you seek, along with the freshly churned butter and flour ground from last winter’s wheat. By baking a pie that is clear and true—only the sincerest ingredients will suffice—the crone may grant your request.
And even (stripping down the last example):
Take apples, walnuts, nutmeg, cinnamon, the zest and juice of a lemon, dried cranberries, optional, and brown sugar. Also required are butter, flour and a pinch of salt. Follow the recipe—the one hand-printed on the scrap of parchment—you will have a pie.
The tone is completely different for the same sequence of punctuation. Even the rhythm is different, though we pause and stop at the same points. (None come close to the original, needless to say.)
So punctuation is more flexible than traffic signals, telling us to stop and to yield.
Punctuation and words live in a symbiosis conditioned by style and content. It is the speed at which we think. It is what we choose to see.
Punctuation interlocks with our words to carry ideas, like a series of locks to channel water, like sheepdogs herding thoughts through complicated terrain.
To close, a New Orleans traffic sign.
As I’ve written before, creativity requires both both sthira and sukha, two concepts from yoga.
Sthira is discipline, determination, habit, while sukha represents joy, ease, daydreaming, flow, inspiration.
If sthira is the habit of working—whether that’s a wordcount or a time limit—sukha is about welcoming the unexpected, about playfulness and fun.
We can’t wait around for the unexpected, and much less for inspiration. Like lightning, it comes when it comes. Creating involves perspiration, another characteristic of sthira. But we also have to breathe in, to play.
A side project can be a shortcut to engage both sukha and sthira.
A side project isn’t part of our main project. It could be in a completely different medium, like visual if one is a writer, or it could represent a shift in tone, comics instead of oil paintings, or it could require a different approach, such as making a collection.
What makes a project a side project?
According to this great piece:
- Low risk. Our income doesn’t depend on it.
- Low pressure. No deadline.
- Love. We enjoy it.
There is final product, which makes it different from a creative hobby.
So we’re back to…
Sthira: we really need to complete it.
Sukha: we have fun.
Side projects become super-charged when they involve experimentation. Trying something new. New things can be uncomfortable, which makes them sthira.
Side projects go corporate
Tech and design businesses, like Hewlett Packard, 3M, and Google have formal programs to encourage side projects.
We’ve all heard about Google’s 20% time policy, but 3M already had a 15% program in 1948: that’s where we got Post-Its.
Not surprisingly, such programs don’t just lead to new products, but to a happier workforce. (Remember: fun.)
When is it risky to take on a side project?
Cartoonist and storyteller Jessica Abel points out the danger of having an overabundance of projects.
Most of us create in the time left over from a day job and our families, between getting to the gym to exercise and seeing our friends. If we don’t define a single primary goal, it is all too easy to fritter away our energy and never carry any of our dreams to completion.
Needless to say, this is discouraging. Finishing is key: not just for our projects but for our identities as creators.
This is why a side project has to be on the side and it has to result in a product. It’s also why it has to be fun.
Sometimes side projects become your main project, like starting to write a novel when you’re an oceanographer…
This year I’ve taken on The River Project, which combines my love of walking and photography, and my craving to be near large bodies of water. When I first considered taking a daily picture of the Hudson, it seemed impossible because of my frequent travel.
Then I remembered that I can try to find the rivers wherever I go.
What about you?
Do you have a side project? What is it? How has it helped with your creative flow?
The first line of a novel can be a curtain sliding apart, or a door that is thrown open. It can be a whispered call to attention, or it can be trumpets and cymbals. First lines aim to draw you in, or in some cases to drag you in to the world of the story.
Here is a random selection of brilliant first lines:
When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.”
Alexander Chee, The Queen of the Night
At twenty-four the ambassador’s daughter slept badly through the warm, unsurprising nights.
Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
This story—like most stories in the history of the world—begins far away from Des Moines, Iowa.
Elizabeth McCracken, Niagara Falls All Over Again
One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years. Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound
The scientific community published a first line of sorts today:
Gravitational waves have been detected for the first time.
On September of 2015 a signal was registered at both sites of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (also known as LIGO). The characteristics suggest that it resulted from the collision of two massive black holes about 1.2 billion years ago. You can hear the gravitational wave, as a rising chirp, at ‘The World According To Sound.’
Actually the announcement was more of a second line, because the true first line was given to us in 1915 as part of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
A hundred years for confirmation may seem a very long time, but at extremes of physical scale far from human dimensions—elementary particles and universes—verification is no easy matter because observation represents a daunting challenge.
Dennis Overbye at The New York Times provides a wonderfully clear explanation of gravitational waves and of LIGO in his article and accompanying video.
This wonderful finding isn’t the final word. Another approach to studying gravitational waves is already underway in space using the LISA Pathfinder satellite.
And in case you wondered, gravitational waves are not the same as gravity waves. Gravitational waves had never been observed before while gravity waves include wind-induced waves on the ocean or a lake or atmospheric waves in the wake of mountain ranges.
We’re rather lucky to be surrounded by wonderful first, and second, lines. Sometimes it’s up to us to provide the following ones.