Tuesday, December 9, 2014


I found that the most marvelous thing about learning how to write is that it’s basically a process of learning how to love something, not only the action itself, but also the object of the action. And in my experience, you typically go from appreciating big things, to small things. When I wrote my first short story I was ridiculously proud of it, even though in hindsight there was hardly a good sentence in it. But it was a good story, and that’s how my love affair with writing began. Once I had written that first story, I started developing a style, story by story, and more and more I narrowed down my attention to the smallest unit: the sentence. Rather than fretting about the story, I became obsessed with writing the perfect one. I was (and still am) dedicated to writing long, flowing, but perfectly balanced sentences. You can spot them from a mile away, a writer who loves sentences; you can feel how lovingly the words have been handled. 
     ‘Phraseology’ is defined as ‘a particular mode of expression, especially one characteristic of a particular speaker or subject area’. The word ‘phraseology’ is (ironically) actually a mistake, coined erroneously in Greek as ‘phraseologia’ in the 1550s, from the Greek word ‘phrasis’ (‘way of speaking’) and ‘logia’ (typically defined as ‘reason’, or the ‘study of’). The correct form would have been ‘phrasiology’, but alas, it was not to be. Originally the word denoted a ‘phrase book’, but at the beginning of the 1660s it started being used to refer to a ‘way of arranging words, characteristic of style and expression’. The more you know.
      One of the writers whom you can spot from a mile away as being in love with sentences, is F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read his Tender is the Night when I just started writing, and about every other page I felt like throwing the book at someone’s head—that’s how brilliant his phraseology was. A case in point: ‘On the centre of the lake, cooled by the piercing current of the Rhône, lay the true centre of the Western World. Upon it floated swans like boats and boats like swans, both lost in the nothingness of the heartless beauty.’
     I always imagine a bomb dropping after the end of this sentence. I actually felt rather put off when I finished Tender is the Night, not because I didn’t like it—on the contrary—but because I felt that I would never be able to write sentences like that. I didn’t give up, however, maybe because I felt more moved by so much verbal beauty than daunted by the job of emulating it—which, let’s face it, I’ll never be able to do anyway. Which is fine; only F. Scott Fitzgerald can write Fitzgeraldian phraseology, and that’s how it should be.  
     On the particulars of the story in Tender is the Night, I admit I am a bit unclear, partly because it’s been over two years since I read it, but also because the plot was rather vague. Which may or may not be a bad thing. Following up on something I already touched upon in my last blog post, there are writers who will tell you that story is more important. And indeed, I need to pay attention sometimes not to lose myself in phraseology and forget about the bigger picture. But while both are important, I found that there is a marked difference between a good story and a good sentence: a good story, with a good plot and fascinating characters, keeps you going. A good sentence, however, can make you stop. 
     ‘Stop and smell the roses,’ they say. This, I think, is what great literature does. Not good literature; good literature spins an interesting and compelling story which keeps you continuing on to the next chapter. But great literature can make you stop; it freezes the plot for a minute and it points a finger: look at this sunrise, at this blade of grass, at this freckle on that girl’s upper lip. And, maybe for the first time, you look, and you see it. This, I think, is what great literature can do: it makes you stop and smell the roses. Which can be quite separate, by the way, from the story itself, because a good sentence may not be relevant to the plot at all (in fact, I find that sentences that advance plot are rarely very poetical or profound; plot prefers simplicity). And, as I found with Tender as the Night, I felt like I could trust a writer with such compelling phraseology (even though I did not immediately see where the story was going), and trust that he would take me on a journey which would leave me feeling satisfied. 
     You can take it a bit too far, of course. In my family there exists a culture of reading mostly based on ‘does this sentence work’? When judging whether a book is worth reading, me, my father or my sister have been known to look at the first page and read the first sentence, and then go, “good sentence, I’ll read this book” or “boring sentence; I’ll skip this one”. This, of course, is getting really close to judging a book by its cover, although judging it by its phraseology might be considered slightly more literary. But I must make sure not to take it too far either, this love of sentences. 
    Don’t get me wrong: I think it is quite essential that you should love sentences as a writer. In general, my reasoning is that if I can trust you to build a perfectly structured, esthetically pleasing sentence, then I can trust you to do on macro-level (in terms of plot) what you demonstrated so competently on micro-level (in terms of sentence). Of course, this is a theory which doesn’t always work; there are writers who can compose exquisite sentences, but absolutely stink at plot. For the record, I am not trying to be one of those, but I admit that I would rather be a writer who writes a story with a bad plot and good sentences, than a story with a marvelous plot which is poorly executed. In fact, I think that writing guides too often pay too little attention to this: they tell you a dozen things about characterization, plotting, “show don’t tell” and God knows how many other things, but relatively few writing guides give much attention to that smallest unit in the story. Which I perfectly understand, by the way: certainly for beginning writers, it is important to think on a macro-level first, because if you have to worry about how well-formed your sentences have to be, you’ll never put a word on paper. But once you have gained some self-confidence as a writer, and don’t feel daunted to have a closer look at your writing, I think having a look at your sentences might be a good place to start. Your phraseology forms the building blocks of what a story, in the ground, is: a collection of sentences. Before you can erect a good building, you have to make sure that those building blocks are solid; otherwise it will crumble before you even finish it.   

Friday, November 28, 2014


The worst fear (or it should be) of every writer: clichés. In writing guides, one of the first things they will typically tell you is to avoid clichés (like the plague). Which sounds perfectly reasonable, and not as difficult as ‘show don’t tell’ or ‘find the significant detail’. It is, however, misleading. Because how do you define a cliché? According to my dictionary, ‘a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought’. This seems clear enough. The problem is that, when you put a sentence onto the page, there is a gigantic gray area in judging whether or not that sentence is clichéd. “He was as brave as a lion” is a cliché anyone can recognize, but with a lot of phrases this is not half as clear. I am, for example, quite certain that “he walked down the street” is an overused sentence in English. But does that make it a cliché? And if so, how can you avoid it without making your language incredibly artificial? Because another writing rule is to keep your language simple and natural. When I consider the difference between “he walked down the street” and “he sauntered tiredly down the cobbled boulevard”, I would have to say that the first option sounds more natural. But does that make it the better sentence? I honestly can’t say. 
    ‘Pabulum’ has been marked as ‘literary’ by my dictionary (score!), and is defined as ‘bland or insipid intellectual matter or entertainment’. It is derived from the Latin verb ‘pascere’, which means ‘to feed’, and from the 1670s onwards, ‘pabulum’ was used to refer to ‘fodder, food, nourishment’. The story of how the word came to its current definition, however, requires some cultural background. In the 1930s in America, there was a certain brand called Pablum, the brand name for a soft, bland cereal used as food (> the Latin ‘pabulum’) for infants and weak and invalid people. In a third step, the word acquired its figurative use, when, in the 1970s, Richard Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew used it metaphorically to refer to ‘mushy’ political prose. Politics, it seems, has its uses after all. 
When you are engaged in any kind of writing, you might have noticed that it is sometimes difficult to balance two often repeated writing principles (the pabulum of writing rules, one might say): the quest for, on the one hand, originality and, on the other hand, simplicity. Though both are undeniably important, they are, to a certain extent, contradictory, and what your prose ends up looking like is mostly dependent on what you consider most important. And this is where writers disagree, which is how you get such a colorful pallet of writing styles in the history of literature. A Hemingway, for example, would tell you that simplicity is the root of all good writing, while a Scott Fitzgerald might advocate originality. Personally, I am more a supporter of Fitzgerald, because he tends to shake up his language now and then in ways that are surprising and new. 
    But does this mean that Hemingway’s prose is pabulum? Not in the least (if Hemingway-fans could hold their horses for a minute, please). Because originality can be achieved on different levels, and if Hemingway hasn’t revolutionized literature by his rich turn of phrase, he has certainly achieved originality, not on a sentence-level, but on a story-level. You can have a very minimalistic prose style, but still write wildly imaginative stories. In fact, some people will argue that a minimalistic style is preferable over baroqueness, because a baroque prose style which attempts to surprise the reader at every turn can sometimes detract the reader’s attention from the story. And a (prose) writer’s first job is, after all, to write a good story, no? 
    Absolutely. And I agree that sometimes, while reading a book, my brain can be in a buzz for days about a particular image or turn of phrase which I found brilliant, but be perfectly ignorant about in which context that sentence happened again. (This is an exaggeration, but you get what I mean.) I admit that I have always had an inadequate respect for plot, and almost a fetish for originality, neither of which are very good. In the desperate attempt to avoid writing pabulum, my prose can sometimes become overblown and artificial. Thank god for down-to-earth proofreaders. As a poetry fan, however, I can’t but admire a use of language which is different than the everyday. And yes, this is the kind of language which draws attention to itself, which can lead your attention away from the story for a second. Personally, I don’t mind this, but opinions about this, as stated, vary widely. I have noticed that a lot depends on context, though; while poetic or particularly original prose is wonderful, you should only use it in carefully measured dosages, because if you do it too often, your reader might get overwhelmed. If you go for the original language, you have to give it space, so it can achieve its full effect. Which means that, if you have just released a powerful image onto your reader, it might be better to let your protagonist simply walk down the street, rather saunter tiredly down the cobbled boulevard. 
    At least, this is my experience; I am sure that other writers may have very different ones. As it is, I am trying to find the middle between a poetic and minimalistic style, so my writing doesn’t sound forced, but doesn’t sound like pabulum either. Again, this is a difficult balance to find, and an added problem for me as a young writer, is that I have (in comparison) only read a small portion of the kind of literature which I might try to emulate. Which means that I may not always be aware that what I am writing is actually a cliché. I am currently editing my novel, and in the past few months I have been frequently unpleasantly surprised when I (as a student, and insatiably curious person) discovered that the thing I was so excited about, has actually already been written about extensively. I am not too demotivated, partly because certain subjects never stop being fascinating (love, death; the great themes), but it does nibble away small pieces of your heart to discover that your great discovery was actually not that original at all. 
     But I’m not giving up hope, and I will continue my quest for the beautiful, the surprising, the original thought. And this, I find, is the best way to go about it: if your writing is motivated by a fear of pabulum, rather than a passion for originality, there’s a big chance that your writing will be forced. A passion for originality may not be able to prevent that (I have discovered that often enough during my revisions), but it does help if you don’t want to throw up your hands in despair too many times.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


When I wrote a paper on Mary Shelley last year, I got a red squiggly line underneath my very first sentence because I had (accurately, in my opinion) described her as a ‘woman writer’. In the opinion of my professor, the word ‘woman’ was redundant in the sentence, since the name ‘Mary’ already made it clear that the subject of my paper was female. Now, while I generally get along really well with my English Lit professor, I think she misunderstood me here. Because when I wrote about Mary Shelley as a ‘woman writer’, I didn’t merely see the ‘woman’ as an indication of gender. Describing Mary Shelley as a ‘woman writer’ is not the same as describing her as a ‘female writer’—it’s the latter statement which would be silly on account of superfluity. But not the first. Because being a ‘woman writer’ is more, so much more, than being a writer who also happens to be female. 
     ‘Bluestocking’, according to my dictionary, often carries a derogatory connotation, and refers to ‘an intellectual or literary woman’. The word finds its roots in 18th century England, where, in 1750, a certain Elizabeth Montagu founded a literary salon based on the Parisian model, which encouraged intellectual discussion instead of card games. Though the salon was primarily a female affair, one of the regular attendants was Benjamin Stillingfleet, a botanist, author and translator. The story goes that Stillingfleet, not being rich enough to afford formal dress, attended the meetings in blue worsted stockings, instead of gentleman’s black silk stockings. As such, the term ‘bluestocking’ was first laughingly used in reference to the man himself and his helpful contributions to the conversation, but later came to refer to the informal quality of the gatherings and the emphasis of conversation over fashion. Ironically, none of the women at the salon ever wore blue stockings, but because most of the attendants were female, the word ‘bluestocking’ came to denote a learned, literary woman, and what was originally the contribution of Stillingfleet has all but been forgotten. I would, though, hereby like to thank him for bringing this marvelous word into existence. Benjamin, I salute you. 
     I would like to think that I am a bluestocking. I am taking a study in humanities, and though my conversations with my peers rarely have an exclusively intellectual tenor, they can, and often do, inspire me in delightfully literary ways; several of these blog posts have actually been prompted by a conversation with one of them, so what you read here is often the product of so much more than just my brain. What’s more, several of them (and indeed, most of them) I would like to think of as bluestockings as well, since most of them are academically gifted, literarily engaged, and intellectual in many, many ways. What’s even more, most of my friends appear to be female. I did not decide this consciously, but there does appear to be a predominance of females in the humanities, which I personally don’t mind, but it does create a certain reputation for the humanities as ‘soft’ and ‘female’. Which, of course, is ridiculous; if you are even a little bit acquainted with academia, you know that you have to be tough as nails if you want to function there. In this sense, being called a bluestocking is anything but derogatory—rather an indication of badass.
     But I wanted to write about women writers. Because while feminism has already performed miracles in emancipation for women, in the literary scene women still don’t get the recognition they deserve. A case in point: I am currently collecting poems for a little project (I will tell you about it some other time), and I am feeling increasingly frustrated by the lack of women in my list. From the 20th century onward things start getting better, but before that time female writers—and certainly female poets—were few and far between. And though on the one hand this means that I, as a bluestocking and woman writer, still have a lot of work to get done, and thus stuff to look forward to, it also presents me with the tricky question of quota. We see it often today: many literary prizes strive to keep a balance between awarding both men and women, and thankfully, there are enough women writers—and several of them really brilliant—they can choose from. But if, as a literary institution, you are taking gender into account as a criterion, isn’t that cheating a little? If you actively strive to keep a balance between awarding both men and women, are you really treating women equally? Shouldn’t quality be the first criterion, and gender not an issue at all? That’s what we’re aiming at, right? For gender to become completely irrelevant in reference to literary accomplishment? 
     As stated, it’s a tricky question, and as a self-declared bluestocking, I can’t say I know the answer. If we are being really honest, we see that there is still a big gap between where women writers are right now, and where we need to be. At the moment there still are more male writers than female ones who have gained literary acclaim, and in terms of literary history, we are still far away from claiming our portion of the canon, which for the most part still belongs to the DWEMs (‘dead white European males’). So the question is what will help us reach this goal: strive for actual equality and judge women writers by the quality of their work rather than their gender, or consciously—in reference to literary awards—try to balance out the male and female writers, so gender is a criterion, but might lead to equal results (which the first option might not do)? The thing is, the literary world doesn’t live in a vacuum. Even if you would try to—admirably—make gender not a criterion in your criticism, for most of the world gender still is an issue, and to ignore that would be foolish. The simple truth is that if you are writing as a woman, you are making a statement, whether you want to or not. Being a ‘woman writer’, as I described Mary Shelley a little over a year ago, is in itself a huge thing, while being a male one is not really that big of a deal. 
     Is this equality? No, it isn’t. But to reach equality, ‘equal treatment’ is not going to work. Because what would seem like ‘equal treatment’ to us is actually still culturally biased. Not making exceptions for women means continuing a mostly patriarchal model of society, which we, because we have been living in it for so long, may not always be aware of. In my predominantly female environment, I can almost forget it sometimes. But women and men aren’t treated equally, and what ostensibly looks like ‘making exceptions’ for women, would be actual equal treatment. And finally, ‘equality’ is how you define it. In America, they will tell you that ‘all men are created equal’, which, in fact, we are not. Not everyone was born with the same capacities. Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to walk, talk, go to school and write, as I have the privilege to do. What ‘equality’ means is not that everyone should get ‘equal treatment’, but that everyone should get equal opportunities to flourish. And to get those opportunities, some of us will need some more help than others. We are not born equal, but we do have an equal right to be here and claim our place in society. As for women, I obviously believe that our capacities can compete with men’s, but we sadly don’t live in a society which unanimously agrees on this. Which means that, in our battle for equality, it is not nature, but culture we need to fight. Using quota to keep the balance between the genders is, in my opinion, for now a necessary evil, until we can say that nobody gives a crap anymore whether, in reference to your capacities, you are male or female. But to achieve this, it is immensely important that women also actively claim their place in society, because quota themselves aren’t going to do it. And this is why, my dearest reader, I am a bluestocking. As a writer, I love writing for its own sake, but as a woman, I see how important it is that I keep doing it. And so, I am a bluestocking. How about you?  

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Living as a writer in the 21st century, there is much to be dealt with. There are rules, there are expectations, and there’s a market you have to pay attention to. Because over the last centuries, but especially the last couple of decades, writing has become an increasingly democratic institution, and writers are everywhere. And not amateurs who do it just for sport either, but writers who are determined to get published (because we can, dammit). And if your work is anything less than high quality, you can bet on it that there will be at least a hundred better candidates to take your place. Against the background of the gargantuan supply of contemporary literature, the idea that anyone might write anything lasting seems nigh to impossible. 
    ‘Perennial’ is an adjective which means ‘lasting or existing for a long or apparently infinite time’ and ‘enduring or continually recurring’. It can also specifically be used in reference to a person, in which case it means ‘apparently permanently engaged in a specified role or way of life’. It can also be used in reference to plants or rivers, but I will sadly have to disappoint any botanists reading this blog post, because I won’t go further into that. ‘Perennial’ appeared in English around 1640, in the sense of ‘evergreen’, derived from the Latin adjective ‘perennis’ (‘lasting throughout the year’). ‘Perennis’ in itself is a contraction of the prefix ‘per’ (‘through’) and the substantive ‘annus’ (‘year’). The sense of ‘remaining alive through a number of years’ arose around the 1670s, and the figurative meaning of ‘enduring’ and ‘permanent’ around the 1750s. As you can see, despite some changes in meaning, ‘perennial’ is a word which has clearly endured over the ages
    The simple fact is this: nobody is waiting for you to write anything. There is so much literary supply on the market nowadays, who would your stuff be worth reading over all the rest? The truth, dearest reader, is that I do not know. In fact, I have severe anxieties that, after all the work I put into it, my book will come to nothing because potential readers simply won’t be interested. But in spite of those anxieties, I find that I do not want to compromise on my ideas (I can be very stubborn sometimes) and mindlessly follow the writing advice many websites and books give me. There are too many writers who sacrifice their literary masterpieces to suit the whims of the market, and I don’t want to do it. Mind you, I’m not saying that anything I might come up even has the potential of becoming a literary masterpiece—far from it. But (you might have noticed) I am a very opinionated person, and once I have enough information to form an informed opinion, that opinion will often influence the intentions and aspirations I have for my writing, and I find it very difficult to compromise on those convictions. And certainly not to suit the—anything but perennial—whims of the market. 
     You see, I have no interest in writing a bestseller. Of course I dream of becoming an author who can be a writer only, who can spend their days just writing, and live off royalties for the rest of their life. But I have no interest in prostituting my ideas and pouring them into a mould which would, I feel, reduce them terribly. What I am interested in, however, is writing a classic. To me, you see, a bestseller is like a crash-diet: it works for a while, and you get an incredible peak of success, and it’s amazing. But in 99% of the cases, it doesn’t last. A year or two after the high peak of success, your book is likely to become, as the song goes, “just somebody that I used to know”. And just like with a diet, I am suspicious of instantaneous success and I prefer the idea of lasting success. So I want to write something that will endure; something perennially relevant. Now, I am very aware of how ambitious (and possibly conceited) this is/might sound, and as of yet I still feel lightyears away from ever writing something perennial. 
    The added difficulty is that there are no guidelines on how to write a classic. (That is: when I googled it, I did find a couple of “how to’s”, but those didn’t tell me much more than the advice you usually get for good writing in general.) There are formulas on how to write a bestseller, and I have no doubt that they work like a charm. But while you can play with the demands of the market right now, there is no way to predict that your choice of topic will be relevant a hundred years from now. Case in point: in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey we can read extensive conversations on a book called The Mysteries of Udolpho. For those not familiar with Austen, The Mysteries of Udolpho was an actual book in Austen’s day, which was incredibly popular at the time (say, the 18th century version of Fifty Shades of Grey). In comparison, Austen’s novels were not that well-read at all. Now, however, everyone knows Jane Austen, and people often produce a puzzled frown when trying to figure out what on earth The Mysteries of Udolpho is supposed to be. Nowadays, in fact, the few people who do know The Mysteries of Udolpho generally know it because of Austen, while the book itself has all but disappeared into obscurity. You see my point: temporary success offers absolutely no guarantees for perennial success. It increases your chances, of course, but I would rather be an only moderately successful writer, but a serious one, rather than a writer of popular books that cause nothing but a fad. 
     This is why I, now that I’m working on a third draft of my novel (yes, it’s still the one I’ve been working on since 2013—writing a perennial novel takes time, you know), I sometimes go against the advice of my editor, and go for the less popular, but (in my mind) more interesting writing choice. I admit, I have written some odd things, things which may make the average reader raise their eyebrows. And not always things which are easy to read either. But as I choose to be a literary writer, rather than one aspiring to instant riches and popularity, I flatter myself that I can ask a bit more of my (imaginary) reader than of a reader who only wants to be entertained. Because this is my first attempt at a novel, and I have never been published before, I know that this might seem pretentious, and I am afraid that I will have to compromise in some places after all. Also, I admit that I am sometimes conflicted, when reading my editor’s advice, whether his suggestion will really make my writing better, or merely easily digestible. The reason why revising is taking so long is because figuring out which of the two it is (and, as a consequence, whether or not I should follow his advice) is an arduous process filled with both crippling self-doubt and indignant stubbornness. 
    Once you have a book on the market—and it wasn’t a complete flop—the chances that your editor will be more lenient with you increase dramatically. But alas, I am not there yet, and I fear that I will have to kill more of my darlings than I could justify to my inner literary critic. But I am not necessarily discouraged. I doubt that I will achieve my goal to write a classic with my first novel already, so in that sense the pressure isn’t high yet. For now, at least, I think I might settle for “promising” instead of “brilliant”. Of course, I will keep working towards the latter, in hopes that someday I might write a perennial novel. But while this is, to say the least, difficult to control, I comfort myself with the thought that, even if I will never write a perennial novel, there is nothing keeping me from being a perennial writer. And that is an immensely gratifying thought. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014


As I probably already mentioned somewhere, I am slightly superstitious. It’s nothing serious, and nothing I can’t rationalize when need be, and it has never influenced my behavior or decision-making; rather, I consider myself superstitious in the sense that I sometimes see patterns which I know can’t logically be there, and that I sometimes start believing in the validity of these patterns, despite my better judgment. These patterns I have decoded in various shapes and forms, but one of the more persisting ones is my faith in the power of the number three. 
    ‘Triplicity’ is a rare word according to my dictionary (BOOM! saved another word from extinction today—you can thank me later), and it denotes ‘a group of three people or things’, and also, in a more archaic version, ‘the state of being triple’. The earliest known usage in English of triplicity dates from the 14th century, and derives from the Late Latin word ‘triplicitas’ (‘three-foldness’), which in turn derives from the Latin word ‘triplex’ (‘threefold’, ‘triple’, ‘three’), which again is a derivation from the combination of the prefix ‘tri’ (‘three’) and the Latin verb ‘plicare’ (‘to fold’, ‘bend’, ‘multiply’, ‘add together’). You might recognize it on account of its more common bigger brother ‘duplicity’, which, before it came to be associated with ‘deceitfulness’, initially merely referred to the ‘state of being double’. Luckily, I don’t see the ‘state of being triple’ prompting any such negative connotations, so I can happily continue to use it. 
    Triplicity in my daily life is most immediately apparent in my practice as a writer, because ‘the rule of three’ in writing is one of the first ones I learned. Quoting Wikipedia, the rule of three is a writing principle ‘that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things’. (Note that this definition contained exactly three adjectives.) A reader or an audience is more likely to consume information if it is written in triplicities, so as a writer it is a rule you ought to be conscious of. A series of three often creates a progression in which the tension is created, built up, and finally released. It is the classical ‘beginning, middle, end’ structure, and it continues to be relevant. Interesting side-note: based on the triplicity rule of writing, we have a figure our speech called a ‘hendiatris’. Some of you may have heard of a hendiadys (the expression of a single idea by two words connected with ‘and’, when one could be used to modify the other), but a hendiatris also exists, in this case to express a single idea in three words. To name a very obvious example: sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, to describe the lifestyle of a rock star. And now you know.
    But apart from my writing life, triplicity also plays a role in my everyday life, and lately increasingly so. And I know that this is probably only so because I interpret it that way, but I am personally pleased with my interpretation, because evidence has proven it to be more-or-less accurate. I am more specifically referring to the saying ‘third time’s the charm’, which expresses the hope that, after failing twice in the same endeavor, the third time will be successful. And, strangely, I have found this rule to be correct.
    Exhibit A: my higher education. I started at the conservatory, and while I don’t regret it, it turned out not to be my cup of tea. Then, I started at University, and chose to study English and Spanish. This was better (because English), but still left me stumbling rather spectacularly. Then last year I started for a third time with English and Dutch, and since then it has been going smoothly. Triplicity: proven effective.
    Exhibit B: my weight loss attempts. Once during high school, and once at Uni, the state of my weight bothered me enough to attempt an official diet. That is, I went to a dietitian, who told me everything there was to know about calories and carbs, and then followed up on me while weight loss happened. But while both attempts resulted in weight loss, neither was permanent. Since August this year, however, I gave it a third try, this time without the aid of a dietitian. And while I’m not there yet (so I can’t give conclusive proof that it will be—and will remain—successful), I have a lot more faith now that I will be able to sustain a stable weight once I get there, simply because I’m not relying on someone else for motivation. Triplicity: proven effective. 
    Exhibit C: writing activities. I’m currently working on the third draft of my manuscript, and I finally feel like it’s going somewhere. And since I entrusted the second draft to a professional editing service, and they gave me feedback, I am confident that with their help, I can make the third draft into a more-or-less definitive version. And then, who knows what will happen? I can’t say, of course, but I’m optimistic this time. Another writing-related development is that the English department at Ghent University is organizing a writing competition this year, for the third time. And though I never participated the first two times (for various reasons), I am working on a short story as we speak, which reflects the theme of this year: “in the world” (a phrase which, the advanced mathematician will observe, consists of three words). Needless to say that I am giddy with excitement. Triplicity: proven effective.
    There are more examples, but they are a bit too soon to share, or they haven’t proven their effectiveness yet (though one could argue that some of the previous examples haven’t proven their effectiveness either; their triplicity merely contributes to my feeling confident). Plus, I have illustrated three examples, which seems quite perfect. But do not fret, dearest reader, about my mental health: I am perfectly well-aware that of my own superstition concerning this ‘rule’. Putting faith in things like ‘third time’s the charm’ is, ultimately, more wishful thinking than statistical reality, and what you interpret as the ‘third time’ can be sometimes very subjective. But it is nice to believe that there is a greater cosmic order to my life’s blueprint, and, more importantly, it is also an effective motivator: when at first you don’t succeed, give it a second and a third try; the third time, you’re likely to be successful. Are you going to be successful? There is no guarantee, of course, but it is true that if you give any endeavor a second and a third chance, you are more likely to ultimately get it right than if you give up after your first attempt. Therefore, I don’t think I will lose faith in triplicity anytime soon, whether or not my rational mind cringes at such fancies. I think we might learn from Caesar in this respect: after all he had to come and see first, before he conquered. A good strategy to keep in mind.    

Monday, October 13, 2014


I’ve been doing well. I wouldn’t have believed it a year ago, but almost exactly at the turn of the year, things started going better for me (which was surprising, given my initial skepticism). My grades went up, I lost weight (also surprising, on account of more skepticism), and I am happy to say that I am finally working on my novel again (after a dry spell). A casual observer might state that this year has been quite successful for me. And I would agree. And considering where I came from, I can not but feel happy about all these positive developments. But the strange side effect of my success is that I’m starting to revalue its importance, and I have arrived at the conclusion that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. And I don’t mean that in a negative way; I am very happy and grateful about my personal victories, but it wasn’t those victories which gave me self-confidence. Rather, I needed self-confidence in order to achieve those victories, and from that point on it became a positive feedback cycle. But before I lose myself in a chicken-or-egg argument, I want to posit a question which I have been thinking over for a while: are we defined by our successes? Considering their role in my life at the moment, several things are pointing in that direction. But are they?   
    ‘Éclat’ stands for ‘a brilliant display or effect’, but also, less concretely, for ‘social distinction or conspicuous success’. Now, instead of working my way back in time like I always do, I wanted to start with the oldest form first, but was sadly disappointed in my good intensions, because ‘éclat’ has not yet been traced back to its oldest roots. A possible explanation is that it derives from the Old High German ‘skleizen’, meaning ‘to tear to pieces’, ‘split’ or ‘cleave’. This form did then supposedly mutate into the Old French verb ‘esclater’, meaning ‘to smash’ or ‘to shatter into pieces’, which then evolved into the modern French verb ‘eclater’: ‘to burst out’ or ‘to shine brilliantly’. (Ah, now I see the connection, I can hear you thinking. Quite intriguing, starting with the oldest form.) And from French the derived noun ‘éclat’ was then taken over by the English language, though you can still clearly see—what I like to call, with cheap thriller connotations—the French Connection. 
    Not that I am so proud of my own éclat—it seems like a shameful exaggeration to even talk about my achievements in such grand terms. And let’s face it: we’re all a lot less impressed by our own successes than by others’. And a good thing too; people who are very impressed with themselves are usually not that successful. Rather the opposite: it’s those who keep believing that they can do better who aim higher. And when you aim high you’re at least giving yourself the chance at éclat, which is essential if you want to get there. Of course, there are no guarantees that you will get there, but it’s surprising how much a little goodwill and perseverance can do. And, what has turned out to be the most important to me: resilience. It’s a cliché, but failure is just part of the process. Being the perfectionist that I am, I had a very tough time accepting this, and I used to beat myself up at every little misstep.
But éclat isn’t the absence of failure; it’s the ability to let failure be failure, and not let yourself be dragged down with it. Allow yourself to stumble instead of falling to the ground and live there. Resilience is not giving up in the face of whatever life throws at you, and whatever blunders you might commit in the face of it.
    Also good to keep in mind: éclat is what you see, or rather, what you want to see. This principle is symbolized pretty neatly by what I call “the iceberg theory”. The iceberg theory states that what peaks out above the water, what you would call ‘éclat’ in the sense of ‘conspicuous success’, is only the tip of the iceberg. The largest part which contributes to success is the part beneath the water, the part you can’t see. As this wonderful little diagram illustrates, what you don’t see as an outsider are the risks, the failure, the sacrifice, and most of all the immense amount of work you have to put in. 

Or, to use another illustration:  
Of course, you knew this already. But social comparison is a tricky thing, and seeing someone else’s éclat will often blind us to obvious truths. It’s good to keep in mind, however, that success is always relative: what might be a big step for you, can be everyday reality for another person (even banal), and what might be normal to you might be another person’s wildest dream. So if we do have to evaluate our successes, the only way to measure it is by comparing with ourselves. Did I do better than I did yesterday? If so, then you were successful today. If not, then you were a bit less successful. 
    But even comparing our éclat with ourselves is dangerous, because it determines for a big part how we see ourselves. Which brings me to the question I started out with: are we defined by our successes? A difficult question, to be sure. On account of my personal victories the last few months, I would say yes, because those successes have contributed considerably to my self-confidence (though I needed that self-confidence to achieve those successes in the first place), and a steady trust in the process. Where I always used to feel the compulsive need to control every facet of my life, I am now more comfortable “going with the flow”, as they say. Or, as I recently read somewhere: “hold the vision, trust the process”. I would call this a recipe, wouldn’t you? A recipe for éclat. But anyway.
    If we are defined by our successes (as much as we are defined by our failures, by the way; the theory works in the negative as well, and often a lot stronger), that means that a successful Helena is a different person than not-so-successful Helena. And because successful Helena feels infinitely better than not-so-successful Helena, and because at the moment I think I’m a lot more useful to myself and to the rest of humanity (*cough*) than I used to be, this sentiment might imply something about the Value of Helena. And here’s the rub, because how you value yourself changes depending on the context. And this is where it gets dangerous. 
     Let me explain to you my theory. At the risk of falling into false dichotomies, I have divided the world into two kinds of people: the people who determine human value based on an individual’s use to society, and the people who believe that a human life is inherently valuable, regardless of context. I would call myself a member of the latter category: of course it is easy to say in hindsight, but the Helena who was wilting away a bit more than a year ago didn’t essentially have any less value than the current Helena who is showing some éclat. But the fact that we feel defined by our successes (and I certainly do, to a certain extent) shows how easy it is to forget this. 
     This difference in ideology is a very important one: it’s at the root of social security, for one. If, as a society, you believe that human life is inherently valuable, you will be more willing to put in effort to sustain that life than if you believe that an individual only has the right to live (and, by extension, the right to have the means to live) if (s)he is being a responsible and useful member of society. It’s a difference in ideology which determines a society’s stance on death penalty, abortion, and euthanasia. But more than these big issues, it’s a difference in ideology which has a big impact on our everyday lives, and while it is easy to apply the theory to other people, we are often not so kind to ourselves. I, for example, find it difficult to enjoy something if I don’t feel like I have earned it; there needs to be hardship if I want to enjoy my achievement. On those moments it is important to remember: you don’t need to earn it. You are a human being, and you deserve good things. You deserve éclat simply because you were born. And when you’re in a rut and you feel worthless and depressed, that might just be the one most important thing to remember.

Saturday, October 4, 2014


In my family, we’ve never had much in the way of money. That is, we get on very comfortably, and are by no means poor, but the little extras some of my peers enjoy were rarely a part of my day-to-day experience. For me the greatest downside to this was that we never travelled a lot, or ever very far, while I would like nothing more than to explore the world. But there are worse things to have to deal with, and all in all I don’t think I have a right to complain. And one of the main reasons why I don’t panic about money affairs is because of the extensive social security system we have in Belgium. In this sense, I think we really are unique in the world, because in terms of health care, unemployment benefits, education etc. Belgium has always excelled at funding in order to make all these services (or basic human rights, depending on how you look at it) accessible for everyone. Lately, however, some things have changed in our governmental composition, and a steady fear has been growing that this will have severe monetary consequences for a whole lot of us.
     ‘Penury’ is defined as ‘the state of being very poor’, also ‘extreme poverty’. It derives from the Latin word ‘penuria’ (‘need, scarcity’), which in turn derives from the adverb ‘paene’ (‘scarcely’). Derivations of ‘penury’ include (I need to fill this paragraph, okay?) the adjective ‘penurious’, and (oddly) the noun derived from the adjective , ‘penuriousness’, which has the same primary meaning as ‘penury’, so it’s pretty useless. There are some subtle differences, however, since ‘penurious’ can, aside from ‘extremely poor’ or ‘poverty-stricken’, also mean ‘characterized by poverty’, but also ‘unwilling to spend money’. One assumes that these meanings also pertain to the derived noun, but my dictionary says nothing on this point, so I’m just going to go with my assumption that this is the case. And now you know.
      For my American readers: education in Belgium has always been heavily subsidized. Rightly judging education to be the cornerstone of a healthy and wealthy society, policy makers have always invested a lot of tax money in public education, and I, for one, find this a very positive thing. Of course, you might say that I’m not one to talk, since I, as a student, am the one who’s reaping the benefits of the system. I, however, think that I have a right to speak exactly because of that reason. In today’s information society it is virtually impossible to function if you haven’t received a decent education, so the simple begetting of a diploma (preferably higher education) is extremely important. And thanks to our government, which has always enforced the funding of public education, this has always been possible. Now, however, things are changing, and due to governmental penury, the Powers That Be have decided that budget cuts are going to happen for our educational institutions as well. And I needn’t explain to you that this will have grave consequences for the more penurious amongst us. 
     Of course, the announcement that the entrance fees for universities and colleges will be getting higher has elicited a wave of protest amongst the student population. And this not merely because of the higher price: because the fact is that budget cuts are happening already, and that making entrance fees more expensive is not, by far, going to make up for decreased funding. If entrance fees would have to compensate for the funding we used to have, we’d get the same situation as students in America have: the cost for higher education there is dizzyingly high, which means that most students have to get student loans, and when they have their diploma, they are in debt. And as much as I like America, I do not want to have to live in such a system. Right now the place where I study, Ghent University, is ranked in the 100 best universities in the world. And while I don’t have much in the way of national pride, or even regional pride, I am secretly a little proud that I study at such an excellent institution. And if funds go down, educational quality will inevitably drop as well. It is a sad truth, but if you don’t invest in education, financial penury will result in intellectual penury as well. And I, for one, am not about so sit by and let that happen. 
      This might strike some of my readers as arrogant. Who am I to say where the tax payer’s money should go? Just wait until you have to pay taxes; then you’ll sing a different song. And with all due respect, but I don’t think so. I am very happy with our social security system, and for such an excellent system I would be happy to pay a bit more. Because I do realize that education is very expensive, and I am extremely grateful that I get the chance pursue it. But getting a diploma pays off. It gives you greater chances on the job market, and if your education manages to get you a decent job, paying taxes would not be just an obligatory part of being a member of society, but a way of giving back. Because I don’t want to take our system for granted, even though I believe that education is a basic human right, and shouldn’t put you in penury. Rather the other way around, I should hope. There’s also another, very simple reason, which was best phrased by our mutual friend, John Green: “Let me explain why I like to pay taxes for schools even though I don’t personally have a kid in school: I don’t like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.”
      My apologies for the somewhat political nature of this post. I usually do not care much for politics, but (also a sad truth) I am no better than others in wanting to defend my own interests. Which means that my usual political indifference can change to activism if I feel like my personal values and future are being threatened. But while I feel vaguely guilty that I am more passionately involved in this battle than in, oh say, climate change, I don’t think it’s pure selfishness that I’m thinking about my future. Because this isn’t just my future. This is the future of an entire generation. The generation which will fuel tomorrow’s economy (ideally by getting a high-paying job). You get where I’m going with this: I perfectly understand the need for budget cuts, but if you take money away from education, you will eventually lead the entire country to penury. Organizing education is a giant investment for any society, but it pays off. Perhaps more than any other investment you might make. And if you don’t do it, you might as well use what money you save to pay for your own funeral.