What I Read in the Emergency Room

I think my husband and I are being punished for eating too much Hamburger Helper and Hot Pockets during our poor college days.  Last year, he suffered through much pain before being diagnosed with a nonfunctional gallbladder.  He lost some 30 pounds.  He had the gallbladder removed a few months ago, and is now doing well.  His recovery went smoothly, much better than anybody had told us to anticipate.

My dad also had his gallbladder removed last year because of a gallstone the size of an egg and much pain and suffering before being diagnosed.  It’s funny-strange that both my husband and my father had the same health problem in the same year.

Now, let’s talk about yesterday.  On the way home from the ER, my husband said, “Well, we just broke my New Year’s resolution.”  That is, to NOT visit the ER.  We visited it more than we ought to have last year with broken arms and gallbladder problems.

It looks like I now have gallbladder problems.  I woke up yesterday morning in the most excruciating pain in my abdominal area.  It was close to the intensity of labor pain, if that tells you anything.  My awesome mother-in-law rushed over to get the kids off to school while my husband took me to the ER.  Of course, by the time we got there, the pain had lessened a little, and once they pumped me with pain medication and anti-nausea medications, I felt much much better.  (I also felt better after the student nurse they were training finally got my IV placed correctly after poking me multiple times, blowing a vein, and switching arms.)  They looked at my gallbladder and found no stones, but I am convinced that it isn’t functioning correctly.  We shall see how this all turns out, as I am still having symptoms and mild pain.

So while I waited in the ER for labs to come back and tests to be interpreted, I read.  I read the first four chapters of Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose, and I laughed.  That hurt, but I did laugh.  He approaches revising writing as a doctor would approach a patient, an apt metaphor for my surroundings.  He refers to arrhythmia in writing and uses what he calls The Paramedic Method to save writing by looking for the action in it.  He says to circle every form of “to be” and every prepositional phrase.  “Then find out who’s kicking who and start rebuilding the sentence with that action” (p. 5).

Yes, he knows that last sentence should say “who’s kicking whom,” but the point of his book is to fight what he calls The Official Style.  It is that ridiculous prose/speech that we engage in when trying to sound official, smart, or bureaucratic.  It is the type of speech or writing that assumes all of the power and none of the blame.  He has an entire chapter dedicated to describing this sort of style.  He uses hilarious examples of it and reminds us of George Orwell’s fantastic essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946).

revising prose coverThe Official Style tries to make things seem better than they are, aims to be scientific (but isn’t), and reflects a society worried about being sued.  He likens it to awful poetry and calls it “professional grimacing and prancing” (p. 53).  He arranged a particularly twisted section from the California Penal Code to look like a poem, but it didn’t sound like one.  It was an atrocious poem, and maybe that was the point.

The best part was this: “Imagine trying to think in a world speaking this language—a world where the simplest human activity is translated immediately into its most abstract equivalent and then immediately tossed into this gooey marmalade of pretentious tautology” (p. 72).

I wrote in the margin next to this: “I don’t have to imagine.  I’m in a Ph.D. program!”  I can’t begin to explain the number of times I’ve gotten a headache from this sort of talk and writing in the last six months.

When I taught composition, I often told students not to narrate.  I never had a better word than “narrate” to describe what they were doing.  I wanted them to get to the action instead of telling me how they were about to get to it.  Lanham calls this sort of self-conscious writing “blah blah is that.”  It is the perfect description, and to fix it, just search your document for “is that.”  Then get rid of “is that” and everything before it.  Get to the action, rather than telling your reader how you thought about getting to it or the reasons for getting to it.

Another of my favorite lines is this: “The writer, like a daydreaming bagger at the grocery, stuffs his sentence with first one prepositional phrase and then another” (p. 21).  He goes on to call this “a Polish sausage of a sentence” (21).  This is the type of writing that makes Revising Prose enjoyable, although on the surface it would seem to be dry and boring.