Guest Writer Mel Jones: The Socratic Use of Irony

Mel Jones

Founder of The Midlothian Writers’ WorkshopMel Jones is an extraordinary writer, teacher, and retreat leader. She shares her wisdom and wit online at Mel’s Madness.

I’m thrilled to have her here at The Writerly Life.

Welcome, Mel!

The Socratic Use of Irony

Writing and thinking are so often intertwined for me. Both are intertwined with living. They are inseparable entities. Everything I see and hear is fodder for blog posts, essays, even Facebook status updates. Life is ironic. The challenge is seeing it and then translating it into something readers will be interested in, and giving it a moral. It’s the same process whether the writing is academic, personal, or professional.  Irony invades and I wonder should I write this story? Is there a moral to it? A lesson? And then I wonder, do stories need the moral spelled out?  Do I have to weave that throughout, or do I allow my reader to draw his or her own conclusions in a Socratic sort of way. I always liked Socrates.

***

In one not so recent Composition class, filled with non-traditional students, I faced such a challenge. Is this a story I should tell? Do I fill in the blanks, or allow the reader, like the other people in the story, to draw conclusions? The class was diverse: a woman welder, a roofer, a couple of musicians, veterans, single parents, you know, people struggling to make their lives better.

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” —Socrates
Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socrates

On the first night, two students cried: a man in his thirties (the roofer) and a single mom. They were so sure that they would not be able to do this, that they were simply too old to do this, that writing was too hard. I nurtured this class, held hands until my students felt confident enough to hold each other’s hands. They learned to attack research with a gusto I have rarely encountered – they supported each other, fleshing ideas, offering resources their classmates may not know about…

And then there’s Princess.

Yes, you read that right, Princess. She has a semi-normal name, she’s twenty-seven and wants—insists—people call her Princess. I picture a German shepherd I was friends with years ago. Princess didn’t come to the first two classes and thought she should simply be exempt from those class assignments.

Really, Princess? A man cried he was so overwhelmed by the idea of writing every week. He cried in my classroom. Of course, he doesn’t call himself Princess.

Princess arrived late to class in week three (week one for her). She brought her dinner, rumpled bags while I lectured, refused to do group work, and was in and out of the classroom. She cleaned out her handbag, snapped her gum, and cleaned her nails. Despite the fact that it’s a night class she never took her sunglasses off. Finally, halfway through class, Princess decided she was done for the night. So, she did the only practical thing to do: she wrote me a note, walked in front of me while I was lecturing, positioned her note on the podium, and left.

Class stopped and we all looked where Princess had been in a sort of stunned horror—really? The welder made a snide comment about priorities. As Princess sauntered out the door, my first thought was, damn there’s a story in that, because I just couldn’t make this stuff up. During the break, I made notes.

I emailed Princess and told her that she had makeup work to do and she needed to get in touch with me if she wanted to bring her grade up. Because if you haven’t done any of the work, you flunk. I informed her advisor that she was disruptive in my class.

Princess emailed me back, in all caps (that’s just too ugly to reproduce here): U dont git to tell me wat I ciin do. I is 27 and u dont know me at all I is gonna change the world 4 my daughter. I no wat I has to do to be sucessful. I shuld have an A I jus started class.

Right, I wanted to say, I guess you missed the part in your schedule that said this was an English class. And I am an English teacher. I wanted to say, actually, Princess, bless your heart, I do get to tell you what to do. You see, professors are like bosses; they tell people what to do and then dole out pay in the form of grades. And right now, you are getting a zero. If there were a grade lower than that I would give that. If there were a place on the transcript for conduct and effort, I would write a novel about your rudeness and sense of entitlement. Instead, I did some creative writing. I emailed her back a simple list of assignments that she was missing. I explained that attendance had very little to do with assignments; she was still responsible for the work. She had been on my roster from day one. I prided myself on my restraint and scribbled more notes.

Princess sent a note to her advisor, who forwarded me a copy. It said I wasn’t being flexible nor was I trying to understand her situation. She didn’t use nor. I decided that the semester had just gotten much longer. I purchased a small notebook and wrote Princess Journal on the cover.

Tiara
Image: Fotolia

Princess returned for an encore the next week. She did arrive on time, but sent text messages for ten minutes and ate a four-course meal from some sort of cafeteria-style take out place.

“Who can tell me how to conjugate the verb to be?” I asked. Because the universe revolves around verbs. Not math—even math needs verbs (add these, divide those).

The roofer cringed, but didn’t cry. The welder asked if the answer was X-rated. Princess said she grew up in New York and didn’t need this lesson.

One of the single moms rolled her eyes at Princess and asked me what I meant.

I wrote on the board:

I AM                     You ARE                  They ARE

Everyone seemed to understand. They all breathed a sigh of relief. No tears grammar refresher.

“So how do we put it in the past tense?”

I WAS…You was? No. Were?

“Yes,” I responded. “Were.”

Princess said, “So what about where?”

I stared blankly. “What?”

“Where—it’s where.”

“No, no, it’s were.”

“Whach you know anyway.”

Well, I thought to myself, I am the English teacher; I think you can take my word on word conjugation and prepositions. I didn’t go to school in New York, but, you know, I have three graduate degrees in English. I said, “I have a book in my bag, 501 English Verbs, you can check it if you like.”

“I don’t need no book. It’s where. I’s not stupid.”

The roofer and a veteran mumbled in unison, “That’s debatable.”

The welder responded, “No it’s not.”

I ignored Princess and carried on with my lesson. She munched on her food, looked out through her sunglasses, and muttered a lot.

I gave the class an assignment – a group assignment. But, before I had the chance to say, you must work as a team, Princess sprinted out the door, abandoning her group.

When I found her in the hall I asked, “Where’s your group? Have you worked together? Formed conclusions about how research should work?”

“They be over there! Does I need to show you? You can’t find ’em?”

Grammar aside, I was appalled by her arrogance. I replied, “No, I don’t need you to show me, and I don’t really need the attitude, thank you.”

“Did you hear that?” She grabbed a student walking by. “Who does she think she is disrespectin’ me like that? I gonna file a complaint! Come with me, you be my witness.”

The other student looked confused but followed her anyway. I thought, I’m the Instructor, that’s who I am.

I went on to gather up the rest of my students and complete the class activity. Princess filed her complaint and didn’t return to class. One of my students asked if I had thrown Princess out. The welder said she could take Princess outside and teach her a thing or two, maybe not about English, but about other important life skills. No charge.

All of the veterans offered to help.

When I arrived at school the next morning, one of the tenured professors pulled me aside and told me not to worry about Princess, or her complaint. Princess is enrolled in a technical college, she has flunked Orientation four times—and her goal is to be a Supreme Court justice.

I tried to process it. I had visions of decisions that looked like her emails.

***

I have written, and rewritten this story a dozen times. I refer to my notes, reflect on what I should say about Princess. And then I set it aside; is there anything I can say about Princess that her words and actions don’t say loudly? Is the irony lost? Each time I conclude, no; Princess’ story stands on its own and doesn’t need my commentary. I just have to be brave enough to accept that. I have to accept that we’re all the roofer, the welder, the single moms, and the veterans. The message of the story spells itself out. We don’t need the irony flagged; well, unless we’re Princess.

I still teach Composition—and still look for ironies to develop into stories that might make Socrates smile. Most of the students from that class have graduated now. Princess dropped my class. She is one more step removed from the halls of justice. And I think that’s an ironic justice worth writing about. Because sometimes the story is just worth telling. Sometimes, the lesson teaches itself.

About Mel:

Mel Jones is a native Bostonian. She grew up on the Irish Riviera — The South Shore. As a child, she spent many hours sitting in trees reading books and writing poems. She had her own newspaper column at fifteen and was determined that she would be the next Shakespeare or Tolkien. She was educated at The College of William and Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Antioch University, Los Angeles. She holds degrees in History, English, Rhetoric, Literature, and Creative Writing (Nonfiction). Yes, she is overeducated.

She has done extensive genealogical research both for her own family tree and professionally. Mel edited a now defunct literary journal, The Sylvan Echo. She’s taught children from kindergarten through college in a variety of public and private settings.  She currently teaches College-level Composition. Mel is the founder of The Midlothian Writers’ Workshop.  She offers a variety of services for writers, including retreats.

Publications include a book of poetry, Between the Lines (2005), and essays in The William & Mary Gallery, Sherwood Forest, and online at Little Seal and r.k.vr.y. She recently had an epiphany: if she sent her work out more, she would be published more. She’s working on that. She maintains a sometimes snarky blog, Mel’s Madness, which is more Erma Bombeck than William Shakespeare. Mel lives and writes on a small leisure farm west of Richmond, Virginia with her partner, parrots, and progeny.

“If I could write the beauty of your eyes” —William Shakespeare

A few days ago, I launched my Writer Page on Facebook.

Novel note card, April 2011

Over the last six weeks or so, I have gone places I’ve never gone before—on the Internet, that is. No, I have not been visiting naughty websites. I’ve been doing something the publishing industry calls “Building a Platform.” Note the caps, a signifier of importance. It seems a platform is important for writers. Even those of us without a published book are encouraged to go ahead and start putting ourselves “out there.” So that’s what I’ve been doing under the fabulous leadership of one Not-Bob, or Robert Lee Brewer, who led the My Name Is Not Bob April Platform Challenge.

April, you say? Yes, the challenge ended when April did, but the momentum continues.

I was already a Facebook person, and I “did” LinkedIn. I had signed up for Twitter, added Google+ and Red Room, and I’ve been visiting my fellow platformers’ blogs like crazy, with great admiration for their ability to write posts (daily, some of them; wow), juggle jobs and kids and lives and still write their novels or poetry or memoirs or whatever is dearest to their hearts.

My final goal was to create the Facebook Writer Page. Did I dare call myself a writer and make it a public declaration? When I finally held my nose and dived in, it wasn’t all that bad. In fact, it was fun, and many friends and fellow writers dropped by quickly and “liked” the page, so it’s gotten off to a good start.

Something interesting surfaced in the midst of all that. When I started to create the page, I had to choose a category from among businesses, organizations, nonprofits, brands, and such. I considered all the options and decided on Artist, Band, or Public Figure. I’m not an Artist (well, that one’s close; I like to think I am, with words); I’m not a Band; and I’m certainly not a Public Figure. (Notice those caps again.) The ah-ha moment came when I held my breath and clicked on Artist and saw I had choices there, too.

What kind of person am I? What’s my identity?

Two of the options were “author” and “writer.” Hmmm. Author sounds a little stilted, I thought, so instinctively, I went with writer. After all, that’s what I call myself these days.

It started me thinking. I’m a former English teacher. I should know the distinction between those two words. Writer is more generic? An author is someone . . . more established? I finally gave in and looked them up. Here’s some of what I found.

(If you hate it when people quote the dictionary, you should maybe stop here.)

According to Merriam Webster: an author is “one that originates or creates; the writer of a literary work (as a book). Author originates from the Middle English auctour, from Anglo-French auctor, autor, from Latin auctor promoter, originator, author, from augēre to increase.” The word dates from the 14th century.

A writer is “one that writes [refers to the definition of write] as a: author [one and the same? Really?] and b: one who writes stock options.”  The word traces to the 12th century.

So the word writer pre-dates author, but it doesn’t have the fancy pedigree.

My Dashboard dictionary on the Mac defines author as “someone who writes books as a profession” and writer as “a person who writes books, stories, or articles as a job or regular occupation.”

Are we splitting hairs here?

Let’s look at the word write. Merriam Webster begins with the simplest definition—to “form characters or symbols on a surface with an instrument (as a pen)”—and progresses  to “to set down in writing; to be the author of; to express in literary form.” Ah, getting closer. The example that follows is a line from Shakespeare: “if I could write the beauty of your eyes . . .”

So which am I? I think I’ll stick with writer.

A writer puts marks on a page, yes. She makes words, yes, and symbols, sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters. Stories, memoirs, novels, poetry. She records the world as she sees it. She creates people and places and worlds that didn’t exist before.

A writer makes her mark on the world. That’s what I’d like to do. So call me writer, please. That’s the word for me.

Here’s a question for you: how do you see yourself? Do you call yourself a writer or an author? Is there a distinction in your mind? I expect there’ll be different opinions. I’d love to hear yours.

The King’s English Is Dead: Long Live the King’s English!

I think if I hear one more highly educated, highly paid news anchor say “him and I,” I’m going to throw something big at the TV. The same is true for celebrities and print and online media. Misuse of the English language as I learned it is rampant, and the media spreads it like a plague. I’m being overly dramatic, you say? Maybe, but what’s a little hyperbole (a great word!) in order to make a point?

It’s inevitable that language evolves over time. We only have to look at the works of Shakespeare to see what’s happened to the English language over the past 400 years:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate

What majesty should be, what duty is,

What day is day, night night, and time is time,

Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time;

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,

And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,

I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. . . .

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 86–92

Or we can go back farther to the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour; . . .

—from the Prologue

And there’s Beowulf. The words of that epic poem look foreign to us:

Hwæt! We Gardena        in geardagum,

þeodcyninga,        þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.

Oft Scyld Scefing         sceaþena þreatum, . . .

A hundred years from now, will students of language—if any still exist—look back on the turn of this century and marvel at our archaic English language? Will the pronoun be erased from common usage? Will all spelling be reduced to text-speak? Will books become chips slipped into a tiny pocket embedded in the skin? I hope not.

I’m keenly aware at the moment of the history of language because the novel I’m working on is set around the time of World War I. It’s essential that I capture the vocabulary and the cadences of spoken English at that time. The book is also set in the deep South, which raises the problem of dialect: how much variation is enough to suggest speech patterns of that time and place and also variations of class and race? I want to be true to the language of the time without the language itself becoming a distraction, like that news anchor on TV whose point I miss because I’m fuming over his usage error.

A long time ago, I had a teaching colleague (English) who came to be known locally as the Grammar Police. She wrote scathing letters to the newspaper and called out columnists and editors alike on their errors. The newspaper was our primary source back then. I wonder if she’s now trying to keep up with Twitter. I doubt it. I wonder if she shuts off her TV in dismay.

I’ve noticed that several of my MNIMB platform challenge colleagues are teachers. Not all of you are English teachers, I’m sure, but some of you are; I’ve noticed your paper-grading comments. What problems do you encounter with your students? Do you find that the casual language of the spoken word spills over into their writing? What standards do you apply to their writing? To your own? If you’d like to weigh in, please comment!