Can you spell “cheating” ?

Christmas_ScrabbleMy husband has a friend named Sammy, a reader/writer who wallows in books and finds the library the most arousing of repositories. (We have no quarrel with his assessment.) Add to this picture that Sammy is quite the social animal and likes to game.

Nothing so far-fetched as Las Vegas, mind you. Sammy plays board games. He has a high IQ and relishes the challenge of finer fare. However, being convivial and kind, Sammy ends up facing all kinds of people from his side of a board–anyone who wants to play.

For years, Sammy has played Scrabble with a fellow named Frank. They are an odd couple. Sammy has always won 80 to 90% of the games. No one who knows Frank is surprised, for Frank is not a book reader.  Why Frank loves to play Scrabble with Sammy has been a bit baffling.

There were times when Sammy was sick but Frank, without sympathy, would insist on the weekly Scrabble game. Decorum demanded that the winner give the loser an opportunity to win. Perhaps Frank thought Sammy would do poorly when under the weather. Sammy would take his Tylenol for Flu, put on his slippers, get out the board, play, and win.

'Geoffrey got a triple word score! . . .no, we weren't playing scrabble, I give him points if he strings three words together.'These days something has changed. Frank is no longer losing. Sammy confides that while winning at Scrabble had become so predictable he wanted nothing better than to quit, he kept on out of kindness. However, since he is at present losing, quitting will make him out as a cad. The odd thing is that Frank still does not read books.  Sammy has trouble understanding the victories of his barely literate friend.

I think Frank is memorizing words with high-point letters like X and Z in them. Either that or he is consulting his phone when Sammy leaves the room to grab a couple of drinks or snacks. Is it cheating? I don’t know.

I have had students who are unskilled English writers but who can memorize grammar rules and spelling.  They cannot conjugate properly when writing, nor, for that matter, can they string together words coherently in speech. This will come later, if they become readers. However, some of these students show the ability to memorize for the sake of multiple choice quizzes. Conscientious writing teachers are wary of making classes manageable for students like these—unless the latter actually fall into the tempo and flow of a language through reading, they are cutting corners. There are problems for students who pass writing courses without actually learning to write (because they are not good readers). These problems impact others, demonstrating the injustice of lax college English teachers.

A case in point is that of a Middle School science teacher who wrote with English grammar and spelling mistakes all over the board, making the students snicker. Her students did poorly because they could understand neither her written nor spoken words. Nonetheless she was passed through her college English classes and got a full-time job making more, per hour, than the adjunct college writing teachers who “mercifully” allowed her to pass due to her memorization techniques.

Let’s be Frank about Scrabble. Is memorization a fair demonstration of skill?SavageChickens.com_-297x300

Or is it a kind of cheating?


How Often Do You Fall in Love?

falling-in-love-quotes-4Unless you are the exception, the answer is seldom. We seldom fall in love. When we do, it is rapturous. It changes our lives.

Today I was reading Sarah Jane Freymann‘s post on being a literary agent. She happens to represent nonfiction, plenty of spiritual/inspirational titles (the kind of reading I have judged in contests). I can vouch for the fact that among 150 submissions I read this summer, I didn’t fall in love from the first page with a single one. Perhaps if I had not been hired to keep reading, I wouldn’t have fallen in love at all.

Ms. Freyman writes, “Your eyes meet someone else’s on the street as you’re waiting for a bus, on the subway, in an art gallery, across the proverbial crowded room, on a ledge hanging off a mountain cliff, and something clicks. In other words, one either falls in love…or doesn’t. This, in my opinion, holds as true for people as it does for books on parenting, religion, travel adventure, science, business strategies, sports, cooking, and fiction. And when that “click” happens and a spark is ignited, one tends to rationalize: it was that charming query letter, his blue eyes, the subject is so timely, the author has such a fabulous voice, I really loved the paper and the font she uses, it’s such a great title, and so on and so forth. But for me the truth, alas and thank goodness, is both more simple and more mysterious.”

She is describing love at first sight. I do believe this is what literary agents rely upon to find a book, and what many of us, in fact, rely upon when deciding which book to buy online or in a bookstore. Sometimes if we hadn’t received a glowing review or a title as a gift, we would not persevere.

Love at first sight is not always why any one of us gets married. Marriage may be the result of a slower, more emphatic and convincing seduction and persuasion. While many people hook up with each other as a result of this slow burning persuasion, books do not always get the same benefit. They are, after all, static. They are not alive. They cannot engage with a sedentary being as another human can.

Good writers should remind themselves that editors and agents rely on this magical device–falling in love. it is not always about tweaking one’s novel endlessly. And here’s another reminder: the young & innocent fall in love with greater facility. That is how both The Hobbit and Harry Potter sold: by being read first by children.