Writing (or Not Writing!) about Hamlet

It’s been a dream of mine for a long time: Write a scholarly article about Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

It’s easy to see that my dream is unlikely to come true, for two reasons. 1) I’m a Shaw scholar, not a Shakespearean expert. 2) So many articles and books have been written about Hamlet already that I’m unlikely to come up with an idea to write about.

(I do have one advantage: I spent several years obsessively reading about Hamlet. And I knew I’d be quoting from my favorite scholarly piece about Hamlet: “The Prince or the Poem” by C. S. Lewis.)

But I wasn’t really going to waste time on such an unlikely project, was I? My unconscious mind had an answer to that. A couple of mornings ago, it woke me up at 4 AM with the beginning of an article in my head. It’s a terrific idea – one I’d mentioned, in fact, in an article I just published about Shaw’s Pygmalion.

But there’s this teeny-weeny problem that I don’t know anything – big, fat zero – about the idea I want to pursue (here it is, in a nutshell: Hamlet as a student of literature). Where should I start my research? Jacques Derrida? Stanley Fish? Roland Barthes? There’s no guarantee they’d have anything useful to say.

And even if I were able to create a research plan, I don’t know if there’s enough content to warrant an article.

Nothing daunted, I started doing some research this morning. And what I found out – improbably – is that C. S. Lewis – yes, the same C. S. Lewis! – has written a book (not about Shakespeare – its topic is literary criticism) that might feed me some of the ideas I need.

I downloaded the e-book edition this morning and started reading. Yikes. I had forgotten what a fabulous writer Lewis is. (I used to be a Lewis maniac – have read almost everything he ever published. It’s so good to be spending time with him again.)

So thank you, Unconscious Mind, for an early Christmas present: I am having FUN! 


Instant Quiz ANSWER
Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok
The word best requires three or more items. If there are only two (as in today’s sentence), use better.

The better of two rounds wins first prize. CORRECT

Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers. Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
What Your English Teacher Cover ok
“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go


Formatting a Manuscript

I’ve self-published five books through CreateSpace and helped several of my friends publish books they’ve written. So I consider myself an expert – able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, so to speak.

But I was stymied recently when a friend asked for help with a book he’d written. Everything worked fine through most of the formatting process. I even figured out how to insert the custom title page that another friend had done for him.

But when I tried to set up the copyright page, my software kept inserting a blank page. Despite all my computer smarts, I couldn’t solve the problem. I started thinking that I’d have to hire a formatting service ($200 and up) to fix that one mistake – or abandon the book project. (There’s no way he could pay that kind of fee.)

And then I remembered that Word often embeds hidden codes when you hit the Enter key at the end of a paragraph. I deleted the paragraph break (also called a “hard return”), and the blank page vanished. (Good riddance!)


My point is that formatting a book requires discipline. You have to use the Styles feature in Word. You can’t blithely keep hitting the space bar or tab key to get the look you want. If you throw that advice to the winds (or never learned how to use Word properly – my friend’s problem), you’re likely to end up with a mess that only a wizard can straighten out.

I consider myself – ahem! – one step closer to wizard status. But I hope I never find myself in that situation again.



Instant Quiz ANSWER
Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Use who, not that, when you’re referring to a person. You don’t have to be a stickler about this rule – but keep it in mind when you’re writing formally.

The man who delivered the gifts was wearing a Santa hat. CORRECT

Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers. Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
What Your English Teacher Cover ok
“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go


Philip Larkin

If you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory, you probably remember an episode when the gang plays a drinking game called “Never Have I Ever.”

Here’s how it works: Somebody makes a statement beginning with “Never Have I Ever….” If it’s something you’ve done, you take a shot of whatever beverage everyone is drinking. (You can see a clip here: https://youtu.be/f3JagwMY4gI)

Let’s play! I’ll start: “Never Have I Ever used ‘that of’ in a sentence.’

Did you take a shot?

Sentences with “that of” are almost always clumsy, and I’ve come to hate that phrase. The “that of” construction is probably a residue of the discredited belief that language is supposed to be logical. (It’s not, in case anyone asks.)

Lately, alas, there seems to be a “that of” epidemic going around.

In fact I just came across a “that of” sentence, and the consequence is that I’m probably going to be cranky for the next 30 minutes. The sentence is about the poet Philip Larkin. Here it is:

Larkin’s day job was that of librarian at the University of Hull.


What’s wrong with “Larkin’s day job was librarian at the University of Hull”? Or – better yet – “Larkin was a librarian at the University of Hull”?

Philip Larkin

       Philip Larkin



An Unexpected Lesson from Sir Winston Churchill

I subscribe to Today in Literature, a free e-newsletter about books, poetry, and authors from around the world. (It’s amazing what I don’t know about literature, in spite of my doctorate!)

A recent edition featured an excerpt from My Early Years, a memoir by Sir Winston Churchill.

See if you notice the same thing I did. Churchill is remembering that the smart boys in his class were taught Latin and Greek. Duller boys – Churchill among them – were relegated to – gasp – an English class:

We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell—a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great—was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing—namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis. Mr. Somervell had a system of his own. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue, and green inks….It was a kind of drill. We did it almost daily. As I remained in the Third Form three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.

Churchill is one of many people over the years who believe that good writing is grounded in a thorough knowledge of English grammar. I think they’re wrong (I still don’t know how to diagram a sentence!).

Obviously I don’t have the stature to argue with Churchill. But here’s what struck me when I read that excerpt: Churchill was arguing against himself. Take a look at these sentences:

He knew how to do it.

It was a kind of drill.

We did it almost daily.

I learned it thoroughly.

Now look at these sentences:

Mr. Somervell—a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great—was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing—namely, to write mere English.

Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.

Despite those fond memories of Mr. Somervell’s classes, Churchill didn’t learn how to write that way in school. Churchill’s style features many straightforward declarative sentences (“We did it almost daily”) that any fifth grader could write without the instruction in sentence analysis that Churchill was subjected to.

But what about those long, fancy sentences? Here’s the other thing that struck me about Churchill’s writing: He was addicted to dashes. (So am I, by the way.)

I can just about guarantee that Mr. Somervell didn’t allow his students to use dashes, which are spontaneous punctuation marks that don’t work with formal sentence analysis. (Personal testimony: I graduated from a Catholic college in 1967. We weren’t allowed to use dashes.) 

My suspicion is Churchill left out an important feature of Mr. Somervell’s classes: Actual writing. I would bet the farm (if I owned one) that students spent hours and hours writing and revising essays for Mr. Somervell. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you learn to write. You plop into a chair, pick up a pen (or put your fingers on a keyboard), and get to it.


I can’t resist offering one more example to argue my point. Take a look at these sentences from this post and see if you notice anything:

Personal testimony: I graduated from a Catholic college in 1967. We weren’t allowed to use dashes.

There’s an indefinite pronoun reference! If you tried to diagram the second sentence, you’d notice that we has no antecedent. A grammarian would say that the word students has to appear somewhere in the previous sentence.

I say…bosh. Precision is a wonderful thing, but lively writing should always take precedence.

Sir Winston Churchill

            Sir Winston Churchill



Inertia Pays Me Another Visit

Here’s the problem I was facing: a December 1 deadline for a proposal to do a conference presentation in the spring.

And here’s what’s amazing: despite a really tough struggle with inertia, I just sent it off.

Maybe the problem was the holiday preparations (we’ve shipped all our gifts and done most of our decorating). Maybe I just needed a break. Or it might be simply that I lost my momentum when I stopped thinking about writing and started focusing on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whatever it was, I couldn’t get past it…until yesterday, when I used a favorite trick to get my writing engine started – two tricks, actually.

The first was a reward (or self-imposed threat, depending on how you look at it). A friend loaned me a crime novel that I was eager to read – Hell Fire by Karin Fossum. I told myself that I couldn’t start reading it until I’d spent some time on the proposal. (And now that I’ve read the book, I kind of wish I hadn’t: it’s sad.)

The second strategy was something that time management experts call a “leading task” – a non-threatening chore to get myself moving. I challenged myself to type some quotations I wanted to use in my proposal.

Total time invested: about 20 minutes. Bonus: I was so proud of myself – and so energized – that I drafted almost the entire proposal in one sitting. I was typing away, starting to really get into it, and I suddenly realized that I had my required 250 words.

That was yesterday. Today I did some revising and then sent it off.

Now comes the fun part – putting a PowerPoint together. The presentation is about Village Wooing, a playlet by Bernard Shaw about a man and woman who meet on a cruise ship and eventually decide to get married.

I’ve already found a picture of two deck chairs to use in my presentation! 




Who’s the Person You Used to Be?

A few years ago I started reading books by Joan Didion, an important contemporary American writer. Her memoirs about the deaths of her husband (The Year of Magical Thinking) and daughter (Blue Nights) are extraordinary books – honest, deeply personal, and yet universal.

Didion is most famous for writing books that combine social commentary with reflections on her personal life. I have not yet read any of these, but her name is high on my To Do list. A couple of weeks ago I came across a paragraph from her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem that reminds me of James Hillman, my favorite author:

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.

There’s an entire book in that paragraph. Yours. Mine.

Years ago, when I was recovering from a severe case of shingles, I made a couple of appointments with a psychologist friend to try to figure out what had triggered my illness. (Shingles is widely regarded as a stress-related disease.) Part of the intake procedure was a decade-by-decade survey of my life, and the name Richard Burton inevitably came up when we talked about my college years. I lightheartedly recalled how besotted and silly I had been – a foolish college girl who knew very little about life.

To my astonishment, my psychologist friend was intrigued by my imaginary love affair – even respectful of it. And so I gradually began to revise my attitude towards the Jean-I-had-been. She knew some important things that I’d forgotten about. She was someone important, even if she sometimes embarrasses me today.

Our relentless march toward a New and Improved Self is often a…mistake. Didion is right: The people we used to be need to be welcomed back into our lives.

I really like the disciplined and hard-working person I’ve turned into. It’s a thrill to open my mailbox and find a scholarly journal that features an article I’ve written. (That happened to me earlier this week.)

But so much has been pushed aside, buried, forgotten. Did you know that one Saturday, years ago, I watched a live performance of Swan Lake not once but twice? That I’m gradually filling a metal dollhouse with vintage Renwal plastic furniture? That Bill the Cat is my favorite cartoon character? That I read The Boxcar Children over and over when I was a child?

Not everything I used to love has held up well over the years. But – Thomas Wolfe notwithstanding – often you can go home again. At least I can. Swan Lake is still my favorite ballet, The Boxcar Children is still a wonderful book (I reread it recently and loved it all over again), and Bill the Cat is back with us again, courtesy of Facebook, and as funny as ever.

If you want to be a writer, the first step is to become an interesting person. You can always hire someone to fix your punctuation and sentence structure. But nobody can fix you – that’s a task you have to do yourself.

The good news is that you already are an interesting person. If you sometimes feel empty, or lost, or useless, welcome to the human race. We all feel that way. But there’s a remedy. The energy reserves you need are hidden inside you. Start looking for them, and start writing!

Joan Didion

              Joan Didion



It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane….

A headline on the front page of yesterday’s newspaper caught my eye. (“Polk” refers to the county where we live.)

Duke Energy Making Polk Lines More Avian Friendly

Why “avian friendly”? What’s wrong with “bird friendly”?

Here’s the likely explanation: Somebody on the newspaper staff had an English teacher who liked fancy words. The truth, though, is that pompous words don’t impress anyone. If you want to be a good writer, don’t try to cram as many big words as possible into your sentences. Your first goal should be to have something interesting to say.

A couple of hours after I read about the avian friendly electrical lines, I happened to visit the newspaper’s website. I found this improved version of the headline there:

Duke Energy Moves to Keep Birds on Wires Fireproof

It’s still clumsy, but at least it’s talking about birds.

Here’s how I would have written that headline: 

Duke Energy Making Polk Electric Lines Safer for Birds

This is a good opportunity to remind you about a neurological principle that’s solid gold can for writers: There’s an ongoing movie track inside our heads. Good writers exploit this principle by providing a steady steam of pictures for their readers. 

Let me give you two examples of what I’m talking about. Take a look at this sentence:

John and Mary planted annuals near the front door.

It’s a fine sentence. But if you change “the” to “their,” it becomes a better sentence because your brain sees John and Mary twice, rather than once:

John and Mary planted annuals near their front door.

I use this “create a picture” principle all the time. Let’s take another look at the first sentence in my post for today:

A headline on the front page of yesterday’s newspaper caught my eye. 

My sentence includes four items that you can see: headlinefront page, newspaper, eyeGood writers are always looking for words with eye appeal. Is that something you strive to do? If not, it’s a good habit for you to start developing right away.





Years ago when I was writing my book about Bernard Shaw, I knew I was facing a daunting task. But there was one thought that gave me solace: I didn’t have to study Karl Marx.

Although Marx’s writings were once a huge influence on Shaw’s economic and political thinking, they became less important as Shaw grew older…or so the scholars thought. Huge sigh of relief from Jean.

And then, unexpectedly, I found out that the opposite was true – a story for another day. (Preview: The starting point of the story was that James Hillman was getting over a bout with the flu. I am not making this up.)

What I discovered was that Marx had a huge effect on the way we think about language. Jacques Derrida was an avid Marxist, for example. Yes – alas – I ended up studying Karl Marx. 

All of which explains why I made a point of reading an article about Marx in a recent New Yorker magazine: “Karl Marx, Yesterday and Today.”

The author, Louis Menand, specializes in language and writing, making him one of my favorite New Yorker writers. So I was astonished when I read Menand’s comment about historians who try to read Marx in the context of his own era:

The mission is worthy. Historicizing—correcting for the tendency to presentize the past—is what scholars do.

Presentize? Really, Louis?

Talk about a made-up word! If you Google presentize, you come up with…nothing. How did presentize end up in the New Yorker?

And yet…it works. Menand’s sentence has an elegant balance between historicize (an accepted word) and presentize.

(Historicize, incidentally, means “to interpret something as a product of historical development,” “to make historical,” or “to narrate as history.”)

Allow me a moment to explain why presentize shocked me so much. New words tend to have a slangy or jargonish feel, and it’s a good idea to avoid them when you’re writing for publication.

Invented words ending in –ize are a particular problem. Here’s an example I made up myself: Someone writing about cooking might be tempted to include batterize (meaning “dip in batter”) in a recipe for fried chicken. (I just Googled batterize. Mercifully no one seems to have tried to use it as a cooking term.)

So: Was it ok for Menand to coin the word presentize? Here’s the thing: After you’ve built a reputation (as Menand has done), you’re allowed to run a red light now and then.

I’m trying it myself in my latest piece about Shaw – not coining new words, but trying to inject some energy into the steady and impersonal tone you usually hear in scholarly writing. I’m not sure how well it will work, and I may end up throwing away the whole thing. But geez – it’s fun to try it!

Karl Marx

                       Karl Marx