Sunday, August 24, 2008

Is the semi-colon girlie?

I am spending this weekend as a tutor at the NZ Post National Schools Writing Festival at Victoria University. I have eight seventeen and eighteen year olds for six hours over two days discussing their work, doing exercises (the sort where your fingers do the walking), and debating the nuances of the semi-colon.

There are 160 students enrolled for the weekend, and a dozen established writers of poetry, fiction and plays working with them.

Apart from the workshops, there are also sessions for them to watch and learn from. Yesterday, amongst other delights, two script-writing Davids - Geary and Armstrong - and chair Ken Duncum had everyone enthralled when they talked about how to transform stories into material for the stage and screen.

What amazes me is how sure these young writers are about being young writers. I mean, a whole weekend doing nothing but writing and reading and hearing from writers - and each day is underway by 9 am! You have to be pretty certain writing is your thing. I did have one student who shot off after sharing his poem, which referenced - rather fantastically - the Pope and Batman, because he was playing sport; but he was back in the afternoon laughing along with the rest of them at the antics of the two Davids.

James Brown (another workshop tutor) said yesterday, we forget how new the students are, and how they are all still trying out different genres and styles. He's right. At that age I identified as a poet and look at me now. But what they do believe they are is writers - well, most of them including my eight (one or two I suspect have been hijacked by the Head of English at their school and made to attend.)

There is enormous confidence in the way these young people throw out a page to the class and say this is a poem or a short story; the way they discuss the shape of the Batman/Pope poem, whether there should be speech marks inside another poem, the consistency of the Irish theme in one story, the need for shorter sentences in another.

One reads Guy de Maupassant, another reads Stephen King.

All in all a stimulating weekend for students and tutors alike. And speaking of nuances, I heard one student declare she had a crush on the semi-colon at the moment. So this is for her: quotes from a article called Is the Semicolon Girlie?

Page Rockwell: I love the semicolon. But then, I also love the eyelash curler.

Catherine Price: I'd never really thought of punctuation as gendered, though I suppose the wink of the semicolon could be considered more girlish and
coy than the straightforward, masculine em dash.

Tracy Clark-Flory: Clearly, men find the em dash a reassuring phallic symbol, while the semicolon reawakens their Freudian castration anxiety. What better way to cope with penis envy than to make frequent use of the semicolon?

For more go here. Must dash - the workshops call.


pohanginapete said...

I'd read the Boston Globe article, but hadn't seen the follow-up at Salon; thanks Mary. The closing comment by Lynn Harris, although US-centric, is a pearler.

Anonymous said...

I love the semicolon myself; I don't think of it in terms of gender but as a wonderful pause for thought. If it was masculine would that make it a menopause?
cheers Fifi

The Paradoxical Cat said...

The semicolon is a fussy but precise piece of punctuation; I love it. I've never thought of it before as gender-related, but it's definitely age-related, and it's a dying art.

When I was marking university assignments it was an excellent diagnostic for a plagiarised essay. Basically the rule was, if there was a semicolon in a student's essay, the text had been lifted off the internet! They just didn't know how to use them.

By the way I liked your witty "must dash - "