(George Eastman‘s (co-founder of Eastman-Kodak) suicide note. Eastman shot himself in the heart after suffering from chronic spinal pain which left him partially disabled.)
When someone makes the decision to take their own life, often the first thing many people want to know is whether they left a suicide note. Some people, like Eastman, leave just a few words the living are left to ponder; others leave long, detailed letters of regret, pain, and loss. Whatever the method, there is no denying that the final, written words of anyone who has made this decision are compelling.
Taking a class on the composition of suicide notes though…well, that’s definitely new. But philosophy professor Simon Critchley of New York’s the New School believes there is much to be learned, artistically and rhetorically, from suicide notes. He recently hosted a course called the “Suicide Note Writing Workshop.” One of several classes offered in month-long series of programs called “The School of Death,” Critchley came up with the idea after hearing about a program called “The School of Life” in London. Critchley (my kind of guy) called it ” “a particularly nauseating philosophy of self-help.”
Critchley realizes it is a dark subject and also a “way of mocking creative-writing workshops.” But, in the workshop’s defense, the professor explained to The New York Times, “We’re not mocking suicide. We’re doing this as a way to understand it. And why not be a little insensitive? People are terrified in talking about death.”
Fifteen students signed up for the workshop which looks closely at suicide ethics from antiquity to present-day. Suicide notes themselves, Critchley says, are a relatively recent innovation. “In antiquity, there was no need to leave a note,” he said. “It would have been obvious why you killed yourself.”
Notes examined include those left by Adolph Hitler,Virgina Woolf, Kurt Cobain. After analyzing a variety of suicide notes, from both the infamous and “ordinary” people, the class was asked to write their own last words. They were given just fifteen minutes to do so and the goodbyes had to be contained to a 4″ x 6″ index card. One woman wrote this for her children: “When you inevitably discover those things I kept secret, let these not diminish the reality nor the magnitude of my love for you.”
It is an interesting way to think about communication, especially since these last words, when not a classroom exercise, come from people who largely failed at communicating.
When I worked in a bookstore in my early twenties (my mother said it was the equivalent of putting an alcoholic behind a bar), this book was one we stocked. I worked in the tiny store inside an elite hotel alone and Nurnberg’s book was one I frequently thumbed through in between waiting on doctor’s wives looking for the latest bodice-ripper (true story).
No matter how well-educated one is, there are always a few words that, for some reason, just don’t stick.
You are not alone. According to the website Grammar.net, the following are the fifteen most frequently looked up words (at least on their site):
WARNING: your writing may be headed for a coronary.
No, this is not an indictment of your eating habits. (Believe me–these days I can hardly put fingers to keyboard without a sugary coffee and half a bag of Cadbury’s mini eggs in me. I am intimately familiar with the ailment that is “writer’s bum.” Ergo, I am NOT the person to school anyone on the deviousness that occurs between hand and mouth.)
I am, however, qualified to speak on the trimness of your writing itself.
Back when I tutored students for the SAT and ACT writing exams, “eloquence” was a prominent focus of the grading rubric. And while eloquence to me, as a Literature and Creative Writing major in university, harkens back to the masters of language–Dickens, Bronte, Austen–“eloquence” (dubious quotation marks and all) to the standardized testing officials actually means quite the opposite; sentences should be devoid of descriptive words, lean to the point of dullness, about as tasty and filling as a leaf of lettuce. It was soul-crushing to teach, though perhaps a necessity when it comes to teaching high school students how to write effectively.
That’s why I found The Writer’s Diet, a new tool that objectively assesses the “leanness” of a writing sample, so interesting. Could it be a helpful tool for students? A measure of eloquence? To find out, I gave it a whirl with one of the best opening paragraphs in the history of the English novel.
Oh my dickens! Look at that lovely paragraph splattered with ugly neon highlighter. What’s even more injurious to the eyes? The Writer’s Diet test’s fitness rating, which breaks down on a smug little bar graph the faults of A Tale of Two Cities.
Alright, so I get it that this test is a totally algorithm-based assessment, and that I chose one of the most flowery writing samples in existence to try it out. But to say that Dickens is beyond flabby is frankly insulting. The only way the WD test could redeem itself now was by casting its harsh neon criticism across the greatest assault to English literature I know of… Fifty Shades of Grey.
So yeah, turns out that the passage about the girl feeling adventurous because she borrowed her boyfriend’s toothbrush is officially “Fit & trim.” Nice one, Writer’s Diet.
As it turns out, there is no objective assessment for good writing, because no algorithm can calculate style. And what I didn’t mention before is that style is the one factor of the SAT/ACT grading rubric that separates a mediocre essay from a great one. It’s one thing to be able to simply state a message, and another to instill it in your reader. So before you forsake all commas, dependent clauses, adjectives and adverbs, take some time to become a master of the English language. Scratch that–become an apprentice of the English language. Even a small infusion of style will take you further than you think.
After all, would you rather chomp into a low-fat, gluten free cracker or a dripping, succulent guacamole bacon burger?
Yeah, I think I know your answer to that already.