Welcome to Menachem's Blog

"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. Blogs, not unlike other Internet sites, are a little organic (maybe bacterial) in their spread. The 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's 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 shabbat, 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's really nice when old friends find you via the blog, especially the ones you haven't seen for a while. So I was really pleased when I received the following communication the other morning from a mate who doesn't live that far away, but we only meet up 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 don't 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"


Some points on how or why I think 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 (very 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 just one guy in shule) had a European accent. Consequently, English was not my first language. I guess I didn't learn (or even hear very much) English at all until I started kindergarten at the age of 2½. So I really am an English Second Language person. In those days they didn't take this into account in the education system. I believe as a result, there are many advantages in my understanding of and expressiveness in this second language, English, but it wasn't easy at all.

I remember in 2nd year high school (at Randwick), 8th grade in today's parlance, I used to get about 6 (out of 10) for my best essays. It used to upset me, but in those days our teachers didn't seem to know (or care) how to help develop the skill of writing expressively. The concept of creative writing was still some time off.

In primary (elementary) school in Coogee, my best friend, Jeffrey Steinweg (not from the piano family, but foreigners -- German origin -- like us just the same), used to open his dictionary at random and look for the longest word on the pages in front of him. He would work this long word into his composition. For some reason, Mr Crispin (our teacher in grades 5 and 6) was fooled into thinking Jeff had a great 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.

My mother, sensing my disappointment, and also "knowing" that her son was a genius, smarter than Jeff, and should be getting full marks, searched for a solution. Now, while she helped me with other school work, English creative writing was well outside of her experience and ability. Believe it or not, she found me another Hungarian speaker who in fact did wonders for my writing style. Mrs Heidingsfeld was teaching me French after school and her husband taught us mishnah. My mother asked Mrs Heidingsfeld to help me to write better in English (I told you my mother didn't know any English speakers). 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 the subject. In her accented English, she assigned me topics on which to write, and I would write 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. To reiterate what I said above, I think the fact that she spoke and understood all these other languages from the inside before she learned English, gave her (and me to a lesser extent when it was pointed out to me) an insight that our school teachers lacked in their depth of understanding what language can do, and of 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 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 to you stop, semi-colons too often). And I have modified Jeff Steinway's little trick. First I don't use big words, because 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.

Second, [that is correct English, though most people do say secondly, but that an adverb -- 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's what I know, but I exaggerate a lot and "modify" (stretch) the truth. Sometimes the result may be mush more fiction than reality. So? It keeps the reader guessing as to what I am thinking. It's meant to be entertaining and the same time, somewhat stimulating, thought provoking. And funny, above all. I enjoyed writing about the Lesbian 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 don't 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 don't 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.) As Ches wrote to me in response to the Lesbian article, "Man, you are going to have all the Lesbians 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 talking directly to you, both in terms of language stype and content. But the aim is for people enjoy what I say and want to share it with others . . . and don't forget the sponsors.

* halfpenny or halfpence, both 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'd 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.

And don't forget to look at my latest (and classic) photographs at www.MenachemKuchar.com


Previous posts: