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A career change and an Oscar – by way of 180 choice words …

Isn’t this just the best letter seeking employment (and a change of career) you’ve ever read? It landed Robert Pirosh a job as a screenwriter in 1930s Hollywood – and it began with his simple statement: “I like words.” Posted last month on Letters of Note – a treasure-trove of a web site that collects and  publishes ‘correspondence deserving of a wider audience’.


I like words


When copywriter Robert Pirosh landed in Hollywood in 1934, eager to become a screenwriter, he wrote and sent the following letter to all the directors, producers, and studio executives he could think of. The approach worked, and after securing three interviews he took a job as a junior writer with MGM.

Pirosh went on to write for the Marx Brothers, and in 1949 won an Academy Award for his Battleground script.

(Source: Dear Wit.)

Dear Sir:

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words.

May I have a few with you?

Robert Pirosh
385 Madison Avenue
Room 610
New York
Eldorado 5-6024


C. S. Lewis on Writing

Published today on Letters of Note.

C. S. Lewis on Writing


Considering he wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, one of the most popular collections of children’s literature of all time, it’s no real surprise that C. S. Lewis received thousands of letters from youngsters during his career. What’s admirable is that he attempted to reply to each and every one of those pieces of fan mail, and not just with a generic, impersonal line or two.

The fantastic letter seen below is a perfect example. It was sent by Lewis to a young American fan named Joan Lancaster in June of 1956 — just a few months before the seventh and final book of the series, The Last Battle, was published — and is actually an invaluable, generous response filled with practical writing advice, all of which still rings true.

(Source: The wonderful, C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Children; Image: C. S. Lewis at work, via .)

The Kilns,
Headington Quarry,
26 June 1956

Dear Joan–

Thanks for your letter of the 3rd. You describe your Wonderful Night v. well. That is, you describe the place and the people and the night and the feeling of it all, very well — but not the thing itself — the setting but not the jewel. And no wonder! Wordsworth often does just the same. His Prelude (you’re bound to read it about 10 years hence. Don’t try it now, or you’ll only spoil it for later reading) is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described. If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.

About amn’t Iaren’t I and am I not, of course there are no right or wrong answers about language in the sense in which there are right and wrong answers in Arithmetic. “Good English” is whatever educated people talk; so that what is good in one place or time would not be so in another. Amn’t I was good 50 years ago in the North of Ireland where I was brought up, but bad in Southern England. Aren’t I would have been hideously bad in Ireland but very good in England. And of course I just don’t know which (if either) is good in modern Florida. Don’t take any notice of teachers and textbooks in such matters. Nor of logic. It is good to say “more than one passenger was hurt,” although more than one equals at least two and therefore logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was!

What really matters is:–

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Thanks for the photos. You and Aslan both look v. well. I hope you’ll like your new home.

With love
C.S. Lewis


Piecing It Together

A poem by my 18-year-old daughter, Flo.

Piecing It Together

Flo Wen

The sky was green, the grass was blue, and chaos we were feeling;

Between us: wreckage, hostile thoughts, and things he was concealing.

I knew enough to topsy-turve the love we’d been maintaining

For disbelief replaced whatever passion was remaining.


For he and I had always said, it’s you and me forever

In those five words, there wasn’t room for his or my whoever.

But pacts are pacts, by nature meant to be a bit mistreated

They say that love’s a game and if it’s true, his pawn had cheated.


I called her all the names I could; indeed my friends came running

For ladies who have morals jump at any chance of shunning.

Yet shunned or not, this lady stayed the object of affection –

He was mine, and she was his: it’s just love’s imperfection.


But imperfection paves the way, like puzzle pieces fitting:

The process of elimination used before committing.

And though I didn’t know it then, we didn’t fit together;

For he remained a corner piece, and I was in the center.


But I, like every puzzle piece, upheld my only function:

To find that central piece near mine, and strengthen the conjunction.

For God knows every pair of lovers needs a good supporting;

In fact, it’s just the nature of the troubled act of courting.

Can word rage be worse than road rage? The other side of editing …

Someone isn’t very pleased with what happened to his copy in the hands of the Times subs. “Anger, real steaming fucking anger can make a man verbose.” Dedicated to 21C’s fabulous izers, who would never inspire such word rage. (And thanks to Olivia for sharing this Guardian article on Facebook. I LOVE it.)

Read Giles Coren’s letter to Times subs


I am mightily pissed off. I have addressed this to Owen, Amanda and Ben because I don’t know who i am supposed to be pissed off with (i’m assuming owen, but i filed to amanda and ben so it’s only fair), and also to Tony, who wasn’t here – if he had been I’m guessing it wouldn’t have happened.

I don’t really like people tinkering with my copy for the sake of tinkering. I do not enjoy the suggestion that you have a better ear or eye for how I want my words to read than I do. Owen, we discussed your turning three of my long sentences into six short ones in a single piece, and how that wasn’t going to happen anymore, so I’m really hoping it wasn’t you that fucked up my review on saturday.

It was the final sentence. Final sentences are very, very important. A piece builds to them, they are the little jingle that the reader takes with him into the weekend.

I wrote: “I can’t think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for a nosh.”

It appeared as: “I can’t think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for nosh.”

There is no length issue. This is someone thinking “I’ll just remove this indefinite article because Coren is an illiterate cunt and i know best”.

Well, you fucking don’t.
This was shit, shit sub-editing for three reasons.
1) ‘Nosh’, as I’m sure you fluent Yiddish speakers know, is a noun formed from a bastardisation of the German ‘naschen’. It is a verb, and can be construed into two distinct nouns. One, ‘nosh’, means simply ‘food’. You have decided that this is what i meant and removed the ‘a’. I am insulted enough that you think you have a better ear for English than me. But a better ear for Yiddish? I doubt it. Because the other noun, ‘nosh’ means “a session of eating” – in this sense you might think of its dual valency as being similar to that of ‘scoff’. you can go for a scoff. or you can buy some scoff. the sentence you left me with is shit, and is not what i meant. Why would you change a sentnece aso that it meant something i didn’t mean? I don’t know, but you risk doing it every time you change something. And the way you avoid this kind of fuck up is by not changing a word of my copy without asking me, okay? it’s easy. Not. A. Word. Ever.

2) I will now explain why your error is even more shit than it looks. You see, i was making a joke. I do that sometimes. I have set up the street as “sexually-charged”. I have described the shenanigans across the road at G.A.Y.. I have used the word ‘gaily’ as a gentle nudge. And “looking for a nosh” has a secondary meaning of looking for a blowjob. Not specifically gay, for this is soho, and there are plenty of girls there who take money for noshing boys. “looking for nosh” does not have that ambiguity. the joke is gone. I only wrote that sodding paragraph to make that joke. And you’ve fucking stripped it out like a pissed Irish plasterer restoring a renaissance fresco and thinking jesus looks shit with a bear so plastering over it. You might as well have removed the whole paragraph. I mean, fucking christ, don’t you read the copy?

3) And worst of all. Dumbest, deafest, shittest of all, you have removed the unstressed ‘a’ so that the stress that should have fallen on “nosh” is lost, and my piece ends on an unstressed syllable. When you’re winding up a piece of prose, metre is crucial. Can’t you hear? Can’t you hear that it is wrong? It’s not fucking rocket science. It’s fucking pre-GCSE scansion. I have written 350 restaurant reviews for The Times and i have never ended on an unstressed syllable. Fuck. fuck, fuck, fuck.

I am sorry if this looks petty (last time i mailed a Times sub about the change of a single word i got in all sorts of trouble) but i care deeply about my work and i hate to have it fucked up by shit subbing. I have been away, you’ve been subbing joe and hugo and maybe they just file and fuck off and think “hey ho, it’s tomorrow’s fish and chips” – well, not me. I woke up at three in the morning on sunday and fucking lay there, furious, for two hours. weird, maybe. but that’s how it is.

It strips me of all confidence in writing for the magazine. No exaggeration. i’ve got a review to write this morning and i really don’t feel like doing it, for fear that some nuance is going to be removed from the final line, the pay-off, and i’m going to have another weekend ruined for me.

I’ve been writing for The Times for 15 years and i have never asked this before – i have never asked it of anyone i have written for – but I must insist, from now on, that i am sent a proof of every review i do, in pdf format, so i can check it for fuck-ups. and i must be sent it in good time in case changes are needed. It is the only way i can carry on in the job.

And, just out of interest, I’d like whoever made that change to email me and tell me why. Tell me the exact reasoning which led you to remove that word from my copy.

Sorry to go on. Anger, real steaming fucking anger can make a man verbose.
All the best


Talk Like An Opera Geek: Vocal Tricks And Trills (from NPR Music)

Tom Huizenga, on NPR Music’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog, attempts to decode the intriguing and intimidating lexicon of the opera house.


Talk Like An Opera Geek: Vocal Tricks And Trills

Categories: Confessions Of An Operaholic

November 3, 2011

(Talk Like An Opera Geek attempts to decode the intriguing and intimidating lexicon of the opera house.)

Baffled by buffo? Talking about opera can be like walking through a linguistic thicket.

Baffled by buffo? Talking about opera can be like walking through a linguistic thicket.

Ever been to a cocktail party and feel totally lost when some know-it-all opera jerk spouts on about “the mezzo-soprano’s ornamentation in the cabaletta lacked a certain bel canto sensibility, and because of the high tessitura, she sounded like little more than a comedia dell’arte soubrette in her secco recitative.”

Fear not. Read on — and hear the musical excerpts — and you’ll be able to fire back with opera jargon of your own and actually have some idea of what you’re talking about.

Opera — like wine, baseball or deep sea diving — has its own special vernacular which we’ll try to decode and disentangle. In the coming weeks we’ll tackle opera styles, voice and role types, and general musical palaver.

To fire up the series, this week we’ll break down a few vocal tricks and styles of singing.

Got any jargon you would like deciphered? Let us know in the comments section.

Talking Opera: Vocal Tricks And Trills

Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli


  • Artist: Cecilia Bartoli
  • Album: Sacrificium [Deluxe Edition]
  • Song: Berenice, opera [Cadrò, ma qual si mira]

With a set of vocal cords that can fire off flurries of notes like a tommy gun, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli is well-equipped to handle the speed and agility that are the calling cards of coloratura. Daredevil runs up and down the scale, punctuated with high notes, characterize a style that began in the baroque era and still thrives today. The word can refer to both the style and the singer.

Tenor John McCormack

Mezza Voce

  • Artist: John McCormack
  • Album: In Opera: Prima Voce
  • Song: Manon, opera in 5 acts [Il sogno]

This term literally means “half voice.” Sounds simple, right? But it’s disappointing that today so few singers have mastered it. You have to sing at half volume and still be heard in the back row. That requires full breath support, steering clear of anything that resembles crooning. Here, the Irish tenor John McCormack effortlessly glides into a perfect mezza voce.

Soprano Joan Sutherland


  • Artist: Joan Sutherland
  • Album: La Stupenda: The Supreme Voice of Joan Sutherland
  • Song: Les contes d’Hoffmann, opera in 4 acts [Les oiseaux dans la charmille]

A true trill is harder than it might seem. Technically, it’s the rapid alternation of a note and the next note above it, keeping the ground between them nice and clean. Joan Sutherland was, as you might say, licensed to trill. She had a unique combination of power and flexibility.

Soprano Leontyne Price

Messa di Voce

  • Artist: Leontyne Price
  • Album: Highlights
  • Song: La forza del destino, opera [Act 4: Pace, pace, mio Dio!]

A killer messa di voce, which essentially involves the attack of a sustained tone, includes three phases. The tone must start soft (pianissimo), then swell much louder (to fortissimo) and then slowly decrease in volume back to the original softness. For decades, soprano Leontyne Price basically owned this maneuver at the opening “Pace, pace mio dio” from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino.

Countertenor David Daniels.


  • Artist: David Daniels
  • Album: Handel: Operatic Arias
  • Song: Giulio Cesare in Egitto, opera, HWV 17 [Cara speme]

Almost anyone can sing in falsetto (hence Tiny Tim), but some male opera singers make gorgeous sounds in the female register. They are called countertenors, and David Daniels is among the finest, with no trace of the hooty quality that sometimes comes with the high-flying vocal territory.

Understanding Chinglish: A new play tries to bridge the language gap

A piece by my friend Damian Fowler on the BBC News online magazine.



Understanding Chinglish: A new play tries to bridge the language gap

26 October 2011

Chinglish tells the story of a struggling American businessman trying to win a Chinese business contract, with amusing consequences

A new play is bringing to light what is lost in translation between residents of China and the English-speaking world. Damian Fowler finds out just how art imitates life.

Mandarin has arrived on the Broadway stage thanks to a new play called Chinglish, which explores the communication gap between the English-speaking world and China. It is a bilingual play, written in a mix of English and Mandarin, surely a first in the history of Broadway.

A sign in front of a river that reads "no turning over, Please"
A sign in Chinglish by the Yangzi river

Written by the playwright David Henry Hwang, Chinglish is a comedy with a ripped-from-the-headlines theme. It tells the story of a struggling American businessman who finds himself in a provincial city in China, trying to win a contract to make signs for public buildings.

The play explores the language barrier that separates the businessman from his Chinese counterparts who can make or break the deal.

Hwang, a Chinese-American who does not speak Chinese, felt inspired to write the play after his own business trips to China.

“I’ve been going to China a fair amount over the last five or six years, mostly because China has become interested in Broadway musicals and I happen to be the only nominally Chinese who’s ever written a Broadway show,” says Hwang, referring to his play M Butterfly, which won him a Tony Award in 1988.

In China he could not help but notice the “absurdly translated signs” of Chinese into English – otherwise known as Chinglish.

Naively literal, the signs garble English into hilariously strange phrases: one, outside a bathroom for disabled people read as “Deformed Man’s Toilet”.

Other examples were equally baffling:

  • False Alarm! became The Siren Lies!
  • Slippery When Wet! was Be Mindful of the Juicy Surfaces!
  • Don’t Feed the Birds! now read The Fowl Cannot Eat!

But the miscommunication between cultures runs deeper than words, says Mr Hwang.

“Chinglish is about attempts to communicate across cultures and the barriers that separate us, and the most superficial of those is language.

“But then sometimes even if you’re speaking the words literally you may as well be speaking a different language because some of the underlying cultural assumptions are so different.”

Admiration and anxietyOf the seven people in the cast, six are bilingual, either Chinese or Chinese-American actors.

Actress Jennifer Lim plays Xi Yan, a fierce local official who holds the keys to the American’s deal. For her, Chinglish is a truly cross-cultural play.

Sign that says Under Escalator Prohibition
An example of Chinglish in the Shenyang airport

“Growing up I found myself in numerous situations where I’ve had to translate for relatives,” says Lim, who was born in Hong Kong and then educated in Britain and the United States.

“If you speak the Chinese language the Chinglish makes a lot of sense!”

British actor Stephen Pucci, who speaks both English and Mandarin, plays a shady British expat who tries to broker the deal. Pucci has watched the rise of China as a global power with fascination, and admires the play’s topical themes.

“I think it’s definitely going to tap into something and encourage mutual awareness and understanding,” he says. “Whether that understanding will be completely and wholly mutual we will see.”

Chinglish opens at a moment in history when two important world powers, the US and China, are observing each other warily – there is admiration and anxiety on both sides.

“There are expansive differences between Chinese and American culture,” says Leigh Silverman, the director of Chinglish. “It’s essential that we figure out how to contend with each other and I think that’s a part of what the play is exploring.”

Last year, Silverman traveled with Hwang and the play’s producers to Guizhou, a city of four million in south-western China, where the play is set. They were chaperoned by husband-and-wife cultural advisers, Joanna Lee and Ken Smith, who set up business meetings, dinner dates and tours for the creative team.

In addition, the duo helped find original props for the play to make it as authentic as possible. For example, they brought in the framed calligraphy which adorns the stage – including a banner featured in a restaurant scene reading: “Good eating and drinking means good morals.”

Cultural blundersMr Smith and Ms Lee run Museworks, a consultancy connecting performing arts professionals between America, Europe and Asia. They understand the complications of doing business in China and have saved many a business professional from making cultural blunders.

“It is true that you’re finding American businessman, British businessman really in the middle of nowhere in China, in the middle of nowhere in India,” says Ms Lee.

“How do they navigate? How do they find their hotel room, get the support on the ground to get their deal done?”

One of the most important principles to understand when doing business in China is the concept of “guanxi” – pronounced “gwanshee” – which refers to the system of social networks and influential relationships that can facilitate business and other dealings.

“When you talk about guanxi in business it really talks about people you know in advance who have the same goals, same ideals and same way of working as you,” says Mr Smith.

Guanxi even supersedes the significance of the business contract in China, according to the pair.

So, a Westerner doing business in China should expect to spend a lot of time wining and dining their Chinese counterparts to get the deal done. “Once one deal comes through and it’s successful, people tend to stick together. The guanxi continues and strengthens,” says Ms Lee.

In this regard Chinglish and its take on contemporary China is very much of the moment.

That does not mean it is without risk. After all, “Penetration will be dealt with painfully” can really mean “Trespassers will be prosecuted”.