A Few Salient Notes on the Point of Punctuation

Nail Punches and HammersWhat is the point of punctuation? When can we be sure our marks are correctly selected and placed, knowing our readers will often think otherwise! Or worse, won’t care 😦 `

No. Shouldn’t punctuation be like a trip to a good dentist who pulls your tooth but you don’t feel a thing? Later, you feel for the point of that missing tooth with your proofreading tongue. Say goodbye to sunflower seeds, those single quote marks that helped along slow reads at the center of summer late inning baseball games. (Who is you, by the way? – but we should save that issue for a later post, because it has nothing to do with punctuation, but with person.)

The narrator of J. D. Salinger’s Seymour – An Introduction [when do we place titles in italics or “surround them with quote marks” and omit italics?], Buddy Glass, one of Seymour’s brothers, offers his reader a punctuation gift:

“…this unpretentious bouquet of early-blooming parentheses (((( )))).”

But he then suggests the “bouquet” more accurately portrays his “bowlegged…state of mind and body….” Buddy speaks to you as if the general reader is a good old buddy, one who does not pack a red-pen mentality correcting as he goes like a noisy street sweeper the debris of punctuation through streets littered with pot holes and broken gutters with missing horse rings.

Salinger’s narrator’s bouquet has always suggested to me an Army sergeant at rest, as indeed J. D. was.

Is placing letters or words in italics a form of punctuation?

What is ` used for?

What are {/} {/} but no worries this is not a test but a post on punctuation.

From Adverbial Beach (by Joe Linker):

Gently the blousy wordiness finally quiet down not but up again and continually.

Usually superlatively long only this hour lately awake before four too early darkly to call this morning while lately too late to hope for a verbly sleep.

The apostrophe is a comma that evolved from the sea and learned to fly away. Bring an apostrophe down to earth and you’ve got a nice crowbar.

The best punctuation works like the nailing in a tongue and groove hardwood floor; you don’t see the nails. For side edged, top nailed floors, keep a nail punch and hammer close at hand for countersinking punctuation marks that will otherwise trip up readers dancing and sliding by in socks.

Punctuation is such a trip, hipsters in the 60’s used to say, but members of that particular generation of hipsters, pockets full of commas, are beginning to reach their final ellipses.

Losing Forrester Behind the Window

What does one say about the movie critic disappointed that “Jaws” was a terrible romantic comedy? A good movie is a movie that achieves its goals; that the critic may not value those goals doesn’t seem relevant. Writing about “Finding Forrester” (2000) in the New York Times, for example, Stephen Holden hated it for its Hollywood formulas and false depictions of life, but since when has Hollywood valued real life? Holden writes, “Forrester appears to have had no life at all for the past four decades. (But if that’s the case, what on earth could he be writing about?).” This critical comment may say more about Stephen Holden’s imagination than it does about the movie. And Holden doesn’t even get some of the details correct: “When not pounding away at the typewriter, he [Forrester] spends his time peering through binoculars at a neighborhood basketball game in the playground below.” While Forrester does watch the games, he’s primarily a bird watcher when at the window with his binoculars. And Holden makes much of a J. D. Salinger comparison, but if Salinger was in the movie, I must have been out getting popcorn when he appeared.

Roger Ebert was more generous, and approaches the film on its own terms: “The movie contains at least two insights into writing that are right on target. The first is William’s advice to Jamal that he give up waiting for inspiration and just start writing. My own way of phrasing this rule is: The Muse visits during composition, not before. The other accurate insight is a subtle one. An early shot pans across the books next to Jamal’s bed, and we see that his reading tastes are wide, good and various. All of the books are battered, except one, the paperback of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which looks brand new and has no creases on its spine. That’s the book everyone buys but nobody reads.”

Emanuel Levy, writing in Variety, called the script “extremely old fashioned.” Of course! That’s what the makers were after, yet Laura Miller, in Salon, calls it a “farrago,” and dislikes it for not being the movie she wants it to be. But at least she doesn’t mention J. D. Salinger. Laura doesn’t like the ambiguity of references to writing we are unable to read so we can’t know if it’s any good or even what it’s about; plus, Laura says, “the movie is hellbent on getting the author out of the house and, by extension, away from his typewriter. That’s just another way of saying that writers would be warm, loyal and otherwise terrific people — if only they’d quit writing.” She may be on to something there. One of my favorite Forrester quotes comes when William is pacing with his drink while Jamal tentatively gets started on the typewriter: “Punch the keys!” William yells. Writing is physical, William seems to be saying, a paradox, but the body does scream to get away from the typewriter – perhaps that’s where so much of the tension in writing comes from.

David Walker, writing in Van Sant’s home town alternative (to the Oregonian) newspaper, Willamette Week, predicted Oscar success. While Oscar apparently slept through the movie, “Finding Forrester” did win several more obscure awards.

What does “Finding Forrester,” as full as it is of pathos about writing, have to say about writing that holds ethos? One of my favorite quotes comes from William: “A lot of writers know the rules about writing, but they don’t know how to write.” The same might be said of movie directors and movie critics: a lot of them know the rules of making movies, but those rules don’t always turn into satisfying movies if the movie isn’t the movie the critic wanted to see. The goals of “Finding Forrester” are clear in its music score, particularly the ending IZ medley of “Over the Rainbow” with “It’s a Wonderful World.” When Jamal steps into William’s apartment, and when he steps into Mallor, the private school that recruits him for his scores on tests and on the basketball court, he knows he’s not in the Kansas that has been his Bronx anymore. And we know Oz is not a real place, but we hold our disbelief in suspension, and, if nothing else, enjoy the score – the real score, that is, and to appreciate that we need to know something about Bill Frisell, the truly wonderfully eclectic jazz guitarist (Eric, Eric’s drum teacher Joe Janiga, and I saw him with drummer Jack DeJohnette at the Aladdin a few years back).

I also met the “Finding Forrester” director, Gus Van Sant, one year at the Portland Art Museum. My friend William invited me to share tickets he had to a Van Sant reception. I had thought William said the reception was being put on by the AFL-CIO. What in the world would the AFL-CIO be doing feting Gus Van Sant, I wondered. They weren’t, and William enjoyed quite the laugh at my expense. It was, of course, the ACLU hosting the reception. Anyway, we went up and introduced ourselves to Gus and chatted with him for a spell, a quiet, unassuming, and fairly open guy. He was interested in hearing about the work William was doing for the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) at the time. This was long before “Finding Forrester.”

Anyway, back to “Finding Forrester” and what it might have to say about writing. There are few shadows in “Finding Forrester.” Apart from the stark contrasts of black and white, albeit Hollywood style (the two teachers, Mr. Crawford and William; Claire and Jamal, and their respective homes; the two schools; Jamal and his team nemesis), there’s the window – as image, metaphor, symbol, of medium, of looking through without noticing the glass (if there’s a reference to Salinger anywhere in the movie, the window is probably it). Forrester continually, obsessively, cleans the window of his apartment throughout the movie. The window is a metaphor for writing. Jamal and his basketball buddies call William “the Window.” The writer. And the writer disappears behind the window into the work, behind the scenes.

J. D. Salinger’s Advice to Adelia Moore: Write as a Child

Adelia Moore, apparently an old fashioned English major, knew Jerry, had tea and lunch with him, even argued with him (over Vietnam), and received this stunning bit of advice from him, when she was but 20 years old: “If you haven’t published by age 21, you might as well forget it.” Adelia calls it “…his blunt advice about writing.” But is it advice about writing, or sarcasm about publishing? Was it meant to be taken literally, a literal cutoff – as if to say, “If you haven’t published by the time you’re old enough to drink, forget about it.” Or is it a practical kind of cynicism, as if to say, “You want to make it early, so like me you can kick back and not have to write anything more.” Salinger’s first short story was published in 1940, when he was 21. His last published work was in 1965, when he was 46. He died, a little over a month ago, at the age of 91. In “Tea with Jerry” (March 1, Christian Science Monitor), Moore shares her experience with the private writer in 1969, four years after his last published work. Did he know at the time – might he have added, “As for me, I’ll never publish another word”?

“There is a feeling in many quarters that altogether too much fuss is being made about J. D. Salinger,” Henry Grunwald wrote in his introduction to the 1962 collection of critical pieces titled Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, a major effort to explain a “good minor writer,” whose popularity with the general interest reader rankles some of the critics. Salinger wrote at a time when the general interest reader still read stories, when the New Yorker still opened its pages, after The Talk of the Town section, with a couple of short stories, and general interest readers looked forward with general interest to a Saturday afternoon with The Saturday Review. No doubt the twittering in those days went on at Saturday night cocktail parties, face to face, where faces were faces and books were books, even if the faces were books to be read and not the other way around. And Monday one met with one’s shrink to purge the weekend’s bluish-bile.

I don’t know if Adelia Moore became a writer or not. Perhaps “Tea with Jerry” is her magnum opus, the satisfaction of a writer’s spring aspirations killed by a late frost growing back in fall. One of Grunwald’s chapters is called “The Cures for Banana Fever,” a reference to Salinger’s short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” where we get Seymour Glass’s breaking: “The disease has two symptoms: a kind of incapacity to purge one’s emotions, and a chronic hypersensitivity or sense of loss” (p. 126). These symptoms describe a childhood disease.

Why would Salinger have told Adelia to “forget about it” if she had not published by age 21? Perhaps the answer is found in Leslie Fiedler’s piece in Salinger, “The Eye of Innocence”: “The notion that a mere falling short of adulthood is a guarantee of insight and even innocence is a sophisticated view, a latter-day Pastoralism, which finds a Golden Age not in history but at the beginning of each lifetime” (p. 242). Perhaps what Jerry was trying to tell Adelia was that she had to write as a child; it would be no good to write as an adult.