I’ve always had an unrea­son­ably inti­mate, if some­what stormy, rela­tion­ship with punctuation.

On one hand I want punc­tu­a­tion to make sense — to be use­ful, pre­dictable, and con­sis­tently applic­a­ble. On the other hand I want to be able to make use of it for my own ends — to fudge, push, pull, invert, and sub­vert its pre­scribed and pro­scribed uses. To make my par­tic­u­lar mean­ings just a lit­tle clearer. I want to instruct my reader in how to breathe my prose. In how to inhale its mean­ing and to exhale its sense.

I start mess­ing around with punc­tu­a­tion right from the begin­ning, my usual drafts are hashes of frag­ments, rep­e­ti­tions, par­en­thet­i­cals, frag­ments, whizzes, bangs, splits, splotches, hen scratches and fly­specks. Type some words, throw down a comma to indi­cate a break in thought, add a dash — a minor detour if you will. Type some more words, drop in another comma for a slight turn to the left, use a period to mark the end of the whole thought and it’s trail­ing lit­tle brothers.

Then a new para­graph, or maybe an extra blank line if I’m really going to jump the hur­dle and land in some entirely other field. I love ellipses, en dashes, em dashes, paren­the­ses; all of the brack­ets — angle, curly, and square. Each lit­tle glyph adding, to my eye, a slightly dif­fer fla­vor of pause or link­age. They cre­ate con­nec­tions or dis­con­nec­tions between the lit­tle thoughts that flow and stum­ble out of my fingers.

Even­tu­ally I make a proper first draft out of my mess. Using scis­sors, tape, and sev­eral col­ors of high­lighter I take all of the frag­ments and push them to and fro and make them stand in, if not straight lines, at least con­vivial groups. Mar­shal them and march them out on to the field. Much of my crazy, lazy punc­tu­a­tion dis­ap­pears in this process. Not all of it. And some mis­takes are made.

A recent round of edit­ing led to ques­tions about how, exactly, to punc­tu­ate dia­log. Because I had writ­ten a whole story using my usual, utterly con­sis­tent form of punc­tu­a­tion. Which it turns out is wrong about half the time. Grade school failed me in so many ways.

Worse yet, my wrong­ness makes my favorite edi­tor twitchy because it involves commas.

Now I like com­mas as much as the next writer. In fact I like them a lit­tle too much. I’ve been known to sprin­kle them about in my writ­ing like jim­mies on an ice cream cone. With a free hand. But in dia­log? I have a prob­lem with them. I can never get them in the right place when it comes to the dia­log tags. And now, after being asked specif­i­cally to go look the damned things up, I know why. It’s because the rules make no sense.

To wit: this is the sim­plest, cor­rect punc­tu­a­tion of dia­log with attributions.

Go away,” said Tom.
“Go away!” said Tom.
“Go away?” said Tom.

That comma in the first exam­ple is the source of my anxiety:

Go away,” said Tom.

Why pray tell does the sim­ple declar­a­tive sen­tence lose it’s sim­ple declar­a­tive punc­tu­a­tion (the period) and get sad­dled with the breathy lit­tle we’re-not-done-here-yet comma? That comma leads me to expect that Tom is going to have more to say once we get done iden­ti­fy­ing him. That what’s com­ing up is more like:

Go away,” said Tom, “I’m not fin­ished wrap­ping your birth­day present.”

Mean­while, the excla­ma­tion and the ques­tion get the full dig­nity of their true it’s-all-over punc­tu­a­tion marks. But there’s no comma to set off the clause. Why? If there needs to be some sort of comma to set off the speaker’s words as a clause in the first exam­ple there should be a comma in the sec­ond and third exam­ples. Why don’t we have:

Go away!,” said Tom.

Or bet­ter yet…
“Go away!”, said Tom.

(Okay so we put the comma insides the quote because we always vio­late the order-of-operations and mis-nest our punc­tu­a­tion. We’re Amer­i­cans. And we’re lousy pro­gram­mers. That part I can usu­ally remember.)

But still, why?
“Go away,” said Tom.

It com­pletely baf­fles my sense of how punc­tu­a­tion should oper­ate. It’s taken me almost 50 years to finally get this ludi­crously illog­i­cal rule straight in my head.

But now that it’s lodged up there, I promise that I will do my best when re-working my dia­log to forgo the hum­ble period and to get all the com­mas lined up on the right sides of the quotes. Because mis­placed com­mas make my favorite edi­tor twitch and he has enough twitches already.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

All In

by lara on April 30, 2014

Recently, after many years of being away from the art of putting pieces of fab­ric together with lengths of thread, I bought a new sewing machine. A sewing machine that requires not one but two get­ting acquainted classes for the new user, and whose owner’s man­ual is con­sid­er­ably larger than the one for the Dodge Aspen sta­tion wagon on which I learned to drive.

But the absur­dity of a sewing machine with more com­put­ing power than my first desk­top is a topic for another day. The thing that I want to dis­cuss is one of my char­ac­ter­is­tic fail­ings: my inabil­ity to approach a new craft or art with any sort of restraint or sen­si­ble plan. You see I got this new sewing machine and, rather than start back into sewing by mak­ing some­thing I’m famil­iar with — clothes or cur­tains — I fig­ured that I’d move straight into quilting.

I mean, if I can man­age a princess seam how hard can a lot of straight lines be? Besides I’ve done this before. I think. Once. More than 30 years ago.

Every craft or trade has its mag­a­zines and jour­nals. The quil­ters and knit­ters and wood­work­ers and boat builders and bike builders of the world can sub­scribe to and read and pon­der and hope­fully learn from a plethora of pub­li­ca­tions ded­i­cated to fur­ther­ing their art. And there are always new tech­niques to learn: appliqué, mar­quetry, hand pin strip­ing. The mag­a­zines and books con­ve­niently pro­vide instruc­tion in these things and along the way they pro­vide a series of projects designed to let you learn the tech­nique and put it into prac­tice, gen­er­ally on a small, nom­i­nally use­ful project. Some tchotchke that will serve no great pur­pose in your life beyond giv­ing you a place to learn the new tech­nique. Scarves, jew­elry and cigar boxes, gar­den orna­ments — any of them could be use­ful, if you hap­pen to have a cold neck, a pile of ban­gles need­ing a home, a num­ber of loose cig­ars. But you can only wear one scarf at a time (cer­tain Hol­ly­wood prac­ti­tion­ers of the fine art of BoHo fash­ion state­ments aside) and if you have enough jew­elry to require mul­ti­ple jew­elry boxes, well …

The patience to work my way through even a few of this astound­ing num­ber of prac­tice items isn’t on the hori­zon. I could have, for exam­ple, started with a nice patch­work pil­low project. A sim­ple block. Some­thing with only squares. Learned how to get the seams all lined up per­fectly, and to get that all impor­tant con­sis­tent 1/4 inch seam allowance. And then made another pil­low — some­thing that had tri­an­gles in it: learned to work with bias edges and their ten­dency to stretch. And maybe added a lit­tle bor­der. And then another pil­low, one with, say, four mini blocks, some­thing requir­ing the fine art of sash­ing between blocks. Some­thing on which to learn how to get those blocks all to line up in per­fect ranks and rows. And let’s not for­get about the actual quilt­ing: putting together the sand­wich of pieced top, bat­ting and back­ing, then bast­ing the lay­ers to hold it all in place while you quilt it. Stitched in the ditch first — the eas­i­est — then on the next one, a few straight lines, mov­ing on to some curves and curls… maybe a lit­tle stip­pling, or some peb­bles? One lit­tle step at a time, end­ing up with what? An entire couch full of pil­lows that I hate.

Because yes, I have to say it. I hate patch­work pil­lows. They annoy the crap out of me. Sin­gle blocks look unfin­ished and ran­dom. And not in that good, art­less, effort­less way. They look for­lorn, alone, bereft of their patchy buddies.

So here I am. I want to learn to do some­thing but all of the Learn To Do This projects are lit­tle, use­less time wasters, not the thing that I see in my mind when I think of being able to do that thing. There are no cute tea cozies in my knitter’s mind; there are beau­ti­ful sweaters. There are no cigar boxes next to that table saw; there are Mis­sion style blan­ket chests. There are no patch­work pil­lows; there is a queen size bed quilt. And so I start with the thing I want, then fig­ure out how to make it. It takes me longer than it takes some­one who knows how to do it. I waste a bunch of mate­r­ial mak­ing mis­takes that some­one who knows how to do it wouldn’t make. And it most cer­tainly is not as “nice” as it would be if it was made by some­one who knows how to do it. Truth be told, I’d be time and money ahead if I had just sat down and done all the lit­tle learn­ing pieces and then tack­led the final piece. But to Hell with it. I don’t want the lit­tle learn­ing pieces.

I want to dive right in and make the Thing That I Want. And I will, and I’ll love it. All of it’s flaws included. Okay, mostly, some­times. A few of them have need up being unten­able messes that can not be saved even by the blind love of a mother. I don’t think that there is a prac­tice piece in the world that would have made that lime green, knit­ted tank top a good idea for me, no mat­ter how per­fect the execution.

So, no patch­work pil­lows. Nope, there’s going to be a siz­able blan­ket when I get done with this sucker. And it’s going to be a bit of a mess. It’s going to have all of the begin­ner mis­takes writ large and repeated a bunch of times because I’m kind of a slow learner and I’m going to try a cou­ple of my own solu­tions every time I run into a snag before I give up and actu­ally go to look up the Right™ way to do the thing. And every­day for the rest of the use­ful life of that object (and some of them have lasted a good long time), I’m going to be look­ing at those begin­ner mis­takes. The unmatched seams and lit­tle pleats and wob­bly stitch lines and prob­a­bly a dozen more mis­takes that I don’t even know are there yet.

Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to fish, bake, draw, gar­den, knit, med­i­tate, sol­der sil­ver, or frame a pic­ture. No mat­ter what there’s the sen­si­ble begin­ner, without-a-lot-of-cost-and-risk way. Knit a one skein scarf, plant some marigolds in a planter by the front door, build a bird house, weld a gar­den orna­ment. Then there’s the Lara Way. The full, damn-the-doubters, make-the-whole-thing-and-make-it-a-useful-thing-right-now way. Knit an Aran sweater, build a gar­den shed, tear out the lawn and put in enough raised bed planters to grow all of your veg­eta­bles for a year, weld up a rat-bike frame from that old Honda you found in your uncle’s garage, or make a queen-size bed quilt. Because no one needs another scarf, or bird house, or gar­den orna­ment, or pil­low as much as they need a sweater, a gar­den shed, a rat bike, or a warm quilt to sleep under. Espe­cially a quilt.

Russian Prints Quilt Once you’re snug­gled under it, you can’t see the mistakes.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }


March 27, 2014

I don’t like cala­mari. It’s not a big deal, but it’s emphatic. I really don’t like the stuff. It’s rub­bery and unpleas­ant in the mouth and it tastes like dead fish. So I don’t like cala­mari. I’m sur­rounded by peo­ple who loooove cala­mari so I can’t fig­ure out why I don’t. And every five or […]

Read the full article →

Toddler Head

March 3, 2014

Am I the only one here who’s sick unto death of man­ag­ing myself like some balky damn tod­dler? When you have a tod­dler in the house every sin­gle moment of your life is con­sumed with man­ag­ing the tod­dler. They are inge­nious, … and they can walk. In fact, when on one of their laser guided […]

Read the full article →

Thoughts on Arrivals

January 26, 2014

We’re finally in Mex­ico after an overnight delay caused by not hav­ing a flight atten­dant. So I have to ask — is this really vis­it­ing a for­eign coun­try? When the first thing that you do after the inevitable post-flight-hangover nap is walk down the block to the gro­cery store to buy pro­vi­sions? When you can […]

Read the full article →

#FridayReads 25.oct.2013

October 25, 2013

Tony Hiller­man writes a pre­dictably solid mys­tery. With a world that lives and breathes and is very dif­fer­ent from the green, moist Pacific North­west that I con­sider home. A month or so ago I started at the begin­ning of the Navajo series with The Bless­ing Way and am now up to Coy­ote Waits a little […]

Read the full article →

Books I Read A While Ago

October 21, 2013

Three from much ear­lier this year. In non-fiction, Charles Wheelan’s Naked Sta­tis­tics: Strip­ping the Dread from Data. Pro­fes­sor does stats for dum­mies. Lots of base­ball. I kind of like base­ball and there are some amaz­ing things being done with num­bers in base­ball. But mostly it’s the old stand­bys, drug research and the large scale health surveys […]

Read the full article →


January 1, 2013

Not quite a day late, but pretty much a dol­lar — or a piece of soft­ware and a mar­gin change — short. So with­out fur­ther ado — or proper ink­ing — I give you the first install­ment of The Big G.

Read the full article →

Molly Crabapple Has Your Heart (and I have no motivation)

December 6, 2012

Today in pro­cras­ti­na­tion fol­lies. I should be adding ID head­ers to the video from last weekend’s Mock Tri­als. But A) I am too dizzy to stand up and work and B) I need to call my doc about that par­tic­u­lar side effect. But C) I don’t have my new doc’s num­ber in my phone and […]

Read the full article →

#fridayreads 19.oct.2012

October 19, 2012

I’ve missed a lot of read­ing time this week. We saw some awe­some music.… Knopfler and Dylan on Sat­ur­day, Andras Schiff played all of Book 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier on Mon­day and last night Mozart, Beethoven, Hay­den and a world pre­miere — Dai Fujikura’s Mina, Con­certo for 5 Soloists and Orches­tra. That last piece […]

Read the full article →