I’m All About that Bull

“Leopards,” Oom Schalk Lourens said, “Oh yes, there are two varieties on his side of the Limpopo. The chief difference between them is that one kind of leopard has got a few more spots on it than the other kind. But when you meet a leopard in the veld unexpectedly, you seldom trouble to count his spots to find out what kind he belongs to. That is unnecessary because whatever kind of leopard it is that you come across in this way, you only do one kind of running, and that is the fastest kind.”

— “In the Withaak’s Shade” ( Herman Charles Bosman, Mafeking Road and Other Stories)

Among the literary bullshitters of this world, there are few I admire more than Oom Schalk Lourens.  South African readers will likely know Herman Charles Bosman’s raconteur extraordinaire. He tells whoppers, but here’s the thing: The bigger Oom Schalk’s bull, the deeper the thought that drives it.

In the story from which my quote comes, Oom Schalk is searching for stray cattle under the Withaak tree when he encounters a leopard. In that moment, he acknowledges, the semantic differences between species are irrelevant: running is running. Except that he can’t. And just like that, Oom Schalk discovers a truth. Not about leopards, but about hunters: It is not bravery that drives them to stick around in the face of danger, it is fear. They would run like anyone else, except that fear roots them to the spot.

But enough bullshitting about stories. Let’s move on to more metaphorical leopards and cattle in the world of words. Yes, it is necessary to know important things like the differences between commas and semi-colons, or when (not) to use an Oxford comma. Knowing how to use these things reveals great wisdom and sagacity. However, when you’re a writer lying in the shade of a tree searching for words that are as elusive as Oom Schalk Lourens’s cattle, such differences become irrelevant. After all, your fingers only do one kind of clicking across the keyboard, and that is the fastest. (Besides, you can hire an editor to clean up the mess you leave behind.)

When you’re staring into the angry face of a semi-colon and feel its terrifying breath blow across your neck, don’t stop to consider what kind of punctuation mark you are dealing with. Rather, as Oom Schalk suggests, you should trust your instincts and let your strange companion settle beside you. When the time is right, in a second draft, or when a better course of action emerges, you can walk away from it without bloodshed. Or, for risk of repeating this too often, you can hire an editor.

Put differently: it is good to know the rules of grammar, but only to understand when to break them with confidence and purpose. Respond to the demands of situation. (Editors can help with that.)

Whether as a reader, a writer, or an editor, I care not a whit what variety of semi-colon confronts me. That’s for pedants. I care only that it works best in the context.

Turning Meadow Muffins into Manure

I’ve confessed that I’m a bullshitter. Some people have questioned the wisdom of that choice. That’s because bullshit is, erroneously, seen as a term of abuse, as a quick way to dismiss that which we disagree with or to avoid the labour of digging through the dung to discover the truths buried under the meadow muffins.

It’s time to take a closer look at bullshit, its uses and abuses, and its functions in a writerly world. It may take a few shovel-loads to get through the pile, so keep checking in to observe the progress.

The problem is that decades after Harry Frankfurt set out to define what bullshit is (On Bullshit, 1986), we still do not have a clear understanding of bullshit. As Frankfurt noted back then, we employ it randomly, abusively.

For writers, this is a very real danger. People who live among words are especially prone to bullshit—the bad kind, the rhetorical smoke and mirrors that cover up our intent. We fall in love with our own words. They become precious and proliferate, turning into verbal diarrhoea if left unchecked.

There is a reason writing gurus talk about Shitty First Drafts. They’re rough and contain piles of useless dung. Yet any gardener will tell you that fresh dung can decompose and become manure—and manure is “good shit”. All it takes to create manure from dung is for someone to shovel the pile so that it remains aerated and can decompose properly. If you don’t, it turns into soup. Soup is not good shit. It’s manure that you’re after as a writer: material that will feed the soul.

This is where developmental editing comes in. A good developmental editor is a bullshit detector, a shoveller extraordinaire. When doing developmental work, an editor’s job is to aerate the excrement and to ensure that through all the rhetoric, the writer’s profundity shows. To separate the good shit from the bad shit.

Sometimes, editors cannot turn meadow muffins into manure. Then it is their duty to let you know that the shit has turned to soup, that it is simply diarhhoea. Your editor is not your friend. S/he is your bullshit detector.

In this era of Fake News, tightening editorial budgets at publishing houses, increased competition for manuscripts, and who knows what else, writers sure could use a hand finding the fertilizer in the shitpile.

 Let your editor do the shovelling.

A bit of this, a bit of that

Let’s call this a blog post.

Let’s call it an experiment.

Let’s call it a thank you. You know what, just go ahead and call it whatever you like. I don’t care. After three days of being lobbed from pillar to post (can one even have pillars and posts—other than blog posts—on the internet?) by web hosting services, various Helpdesk phantoms and well-meaning tech friends, I finally stumbled upon Grace G. at the Squarespace Helpdesk.

Grace G. started by throwing a link to an article at me. It was filled with terms like DNS and CNAMES and A-something-or-other. I told her it might as well have been written in Dothraki.

Having discovered that I am as lost and defenseless in the world of technology as I’d be in Essos, Grace G. reached for her pen (which, in her case definitely is mightier than the sword). Fine, realistically, it was probably a stylus. Whatever. The point is, she sure knew how to fight her way through that horde of Dothraki words in the article. She reached for her trusty stylus and swished out some commands I could lob back at another hidden face at my domain host.

And just like that, she made magic happen. It’s the truth: The proof lies in these pages you are admiring right now. You’d better be admiring them. I typed the content, but without Grace G. conquering the netherworldly maze of coding that drives this crazy ether-real world we inhabit, no one would ever have seen them.

So thank you, Grace G. The Cretan maze that is the underbelly of the internet is a scary place for the technically challenged.