Menachem's Writings

"Strunk and White" and Me
Why I write the way I do

One of the nice things about writing a blog is the responses (positive and negative) that you receive, and also meeting up with old friends in virtual space. Blogs, not unlike other Internet sites, are a little organic (maybe bacterial) in their spread. They often fall flat, going nowhere with no-one reading them, or they can spread like wildfire. Advertising your site may help some, but the best way to spread the word is via readers letting their friends know, who let their friends know, who let there friends know ... etcetera ad nauseam.

The best way to advertise an internet site is via the Internet itself. My experience with advertising the existence of internet sites via the printed media has had a poor response — and it is obvious why. People have to remember to look you up when they later get onto their computers — and if they read their newspaper over morning coffee before morning prayers on shabath, well forget it. If the commercial is on the net (paid for or better still, in an email) a simple click will get you there.

It is really gratifying when old friends find you via your writings, especially those you have not seen in a while. So I was really pleased when I received the following communication the other morning from a mate who does not live that far away, but whom I only bump into occasionally.

This is what he wrote (as usual my tuppence halfpenny*'s worth is in [maroon writing] in square brackets):

Kuch [that's me] you bastard! [for non Australian readers, this is the ultimate form of Aussie affection]

Why do you write so well? Its way past 1:00 AM and I'm reading your blogs and I'm back in the old house [the Bnei Akiva Maon — wow, what memories — we just about lived there, or at least our parents all thought we spent more time there than we did at home and school put together] on Old South Head Rd [Bondi, in Sydney], sitting around while you are leading some of the best discussions ever. [Ches, you do not have to exaggerate, but it was fun. We really discussed the events of the day openly (with Groover Willie's constant percussion in the background).]

Definitely on my must read list.


Some points on how or why I think and I write the way I do.

I grew up in Sydney, Australia, the first child of recent immigrants who, while they probably thought they were speaking English, were still coming to grips with their new home and unfamiliar language. They spoke Slovak (similar to Czech), their mother tongue, and also Hungarian, between themselves. Conversations with their relatives and friends, and most of their business dealings too, were in these languages. So back then this was basically all I heard in the way of the spoken word. As a matter of fact, thinking back to my childhood, just about every adult I knew (except for my school teachers and one guy in shul) had some sort of European accent.

Consequently, English was not my first language. I guess I did not learn (or even hear very much) English at all until I started kindergarten at the age of 2½. I really am an English Second Language, ESL, person. Back then they did not take this problem into consideration in the education system. I believe that eventually, many advantages were accrued in my understanding of and expressiveness in this second language, but it was not at all easy.

I remember in 2nd year high school (at Randwick Boys' High), 8th grade in today's parlance, I used to get about 6 (out of 10) for my best essays, what we called compositions. It used to upset me, but in those days our teachers did not seem to know (nor care) how to develop in their charges the skill of writing expressively. The concept of creative writing was still some time off. We just wrote our assignments in a vacuum.

In primary [elementary] school in Coogee, my best friend, Jeffrey Steinweg (not from the piano family, but also foreigners, of German origin) used to open his dictionary at random and look for the longest word on the pages open in front of him. He would work this long word into his compositions. For some reason, Mr Crispin (our teacher in grades 5 and 6) was fooled into thinking Jeff had an incredibly broad vocabulary — I suppose after a couple of years of doing this he did develop a better vocab than mine — and he was the only one in the class consistently to get 10 for his prose. (Thinking back now, I wonder if old Laurie Crispin had a dictionary by his side when marking Jeff's writings.)

My mother, sensing my disappointment, and knowing that her genius son, far smarter than Jeff, should be getting full marks, searched for a solution. While she helped me a great deal with other school work, English creative writing was well outside of her experience and ability.

Believe it or not, she found another Hungarian speaker to help me. (I told you that back then my mother did not know any native English speakers.) And, in fact, this lady did wonders for my writing style. Mrs Heidingsfeld was teaching me French after school and her rabbi husband taught us mishna. My mother asked her to teach me how to write better English. I must admit, I thought this was as a dumb an idea as possible and the most embarrassing thing that a mother could do — a Hungarian French teacher improving my English expression! But Mrs Heidingsfeld took up the gauntlet — she had learnt twelve European languages at the Sorbonne, so she did know something about language usage. In her accented English, she assigned me topics on which to write, and I would compose something. She would then proceed, in a very kind way (unlike the teachers at school) to pull apart my work — really pull it to pieces, dissect it, inspect it, not respect it. She would say, "Would it sound better like this ... or perhaps like this?"

After a short time, I was getting 9's and more on my school homework. I think the fact that she spoke and understood many other languages and their grammars, from the inside, before she learned English, gave her an insight that our school teachers lacked. Few of our teachers spoke a second language. They lacked a true understanding of what language can do for you, and, more so, what is the essence of language.

Although I did learn to write very formal, grammatically correct English — I have read Strunk and White, the American bible on English usage, from cover to cover, more than once, and have it next to me on my desk as I write — I have elected to now write in a much more informal style. I write the way I speak. I break lots of the rules (And and But at the beginning of a sentence [sorry Prof Strunk] commas in the wrong places to force the reader to pause a bit, semi-colons too often). And I have modified Jeff Steinway's little trick. First I do not use big words. My vocabulary is not that rich. But even if it were, I hate reading books that use big words to make the writer seem intelligent and make the reader feel inadequate. But then his message is often lost.

Second [that is correct English, though most people write secondly, which is an adverb without a corresponding verb — so?] the way to get found on the web is to use words that people will search for, rather than words that are unique or rare. So in the article on governments I spelt Bogeyman all the different accepted spellings. Even common misspellings are useful, though I do find correctly spelt text easier to read than prose full of spelling mistakes and typos.

I guess the other thing is what I write about. I mainly write about my own experiences, because that is what I know. I do however exaggerate a lot and modify (stretch) the truth. Sometimes the result may be much more fiction than reality. So? It keeps the reader guessing as to what I am thinking. It is meant to be entertaining and the same time, somewhat stimulating, thought provoking. And funny, above all. I enjoyed writing about the Lebian Jews. If the Rebbe from the Warsaw suburb of Ger is called simply "the Gerer", with the definite article, and the Rabbi of the town of Belz, today in the western Ukraine, is known as simply as "the Belzer", then the Rabbi from Lesbos plainly must be "the Lesbian"! I do not know how many hassidim will read this yarn, but if they find something to laugh about themselves, that's good, and if they are angry, that's a pity, but that's good too. I do not write to flatter. I have very little reverence — controversy is more interesting — my style is brash, in-your-face, radical. Rabbi Riskin has called me a reactionary, a badge of honour I wear with pride. As Ches wrote to me in response to the Lebian article, "Man, you are going to have all the Lebians in the world doing circles at night with candles sending you straight to Jehennam!
But I loved it!"

In summary, I found (for me at least) the best way to write is to write as if I am speaking directly to you, both in terms of language style and content. My objective is for people to enjoy what I have to say and want to share it with others ... and do not forget the sponsors.

* halfpenny pronounced haypenny, was the smallest coin in circulation that I remember (after the farthing was withdrawn). I think the expression is derived from our childhood when we would go into Mr Stafford's lolly shop on the corner of Coogee Bay Road and Byron Street near school, pull out all the money in our pockets and ask him "for tuppence halfpenny's worth worth of the black balls from that jar, please". In those days, all lollies, candy and sweets came in big jars, and shopkeeper would count them out with the same sweaty hands with which he took your copper coins. Tuppence for those who grew up up under decimal currency is two pennies.

Menachem Kuchar, 26th June, 2008    
15th Sivan, 5768    

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