Translating in the Dark

I’m working on a project with Andreas (you may know him as “Nannus”) to translate Frege’s “On the Scientific Justification of a Concept Script,” which is funny since I don’t know much about Frege—close to nothing—and I don’t speak German. Nannus, however, is a native German speaker with a strong grasp of English and logic, so I thought my work would be a simple edit of what he’d already published on his blog. I believe I told him it would be nice to move away from the original German syntax to make the writing more accessible to English readers, and I thought it would take very little work since the article’s so short. Professional translators are probably laughing at me now.

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This has been an entirely new sort of writing project for me. Normally when I write, I craft sentences to approximate the idea I have sitting in my mind, and yet, this act lends the initial idea a distinctive clarity, tethering it in specificity. I can’t say I have no idea of what I’m gonna say before it becomes formulated into words, but the idea is usually cloudy, a mere outline. It’s not controversial to say that writing clarifies thoughts, but we don’t always like to acknowledge that it can uproot an initial idea by displaying, sometimes all-too-concretely, its incoherence. Thanks to the delete button I can contradict myself without embarrassing myself, I can change my mind in private so that by the time my idea comes across to an audience, it seems as though my thoughts have always been relatively clear, as if it were only a matter of putting them on paper. In seeing my ideas so concretely, almost objectively, I can revise them, altering them to make them more logical, qualifying them to soften their rough edges, tweaking them to make finer points that otherwise
wouldn’t be available to me. This is part of Frege’s point (as I understand him)—that “external signs” make more permanent what is otherwise transient, that thoughts would not be what we think they are without written language.

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A bit of doodling from high school which I found as I was cleaning out my mom’s house. I decided to photograph this bit and then throw away the journal. No regrets. I like the photo better than the original, especially that glare in the corner.

I found that this distinctive benefit of writing—the clearing out of cobwebs in one’s own mind—gets lost in translating, which instead forces words into what feels like a jigsaw puzzle, the emerging picture being some mysterious original content, the author’s intent, somehow graspable though difficult to re-articulate. This isn’t a perfect metaphor since there’s room for some structural alteration which a jigsaw puzzle wouldn’t allow. For instance, I could break apart sentences that an English reader would find tediously long, within limits. But this breaking apart sometimes meant changing a word or two, which then required changes further down the sentence often due to seemingly trivial things like syntactical expectations in English. And after doing this sentence-level reconstruction, all this had to be looked at from a paragraph level, and the reformulations had to be altered yet again to form a coherent whole. And so on. Not to mention the odd dynamic here since I couldn’t consult with the original text myself, which felt a bit like I was playing out some inverted version of the Chinese room argument…and of course I would be the one locked in the room with nothing but vapor clouds of propositional content, wasting most of my time wondering about pizza delivery options. Plus, I wanted to make changes in places I felt there was inconsistency or superfluous detail clouding the author’s message, but that was not only not my job, but not allowed. The irony here is that Frege’s article is about the cloudiness of language and the need to create a new form of communication free from equivocation, hidden premises, and mental muck. Good luck with that, Frege. I suppose a thin crust pizza might make it under the door relatively intact, don’t you think?

Do you have experiences of translating other people’s words? Or lost in translation experiences? What did you learn?

 

The Will to Believe

A few years back I went to a lecture intended for professors and graduate students in philosophy. It was open to the public, even minimally publicized, but the second I entered the classroom I realized no other ‘outsiders’ had attended. The lecture turned out to be very technical, chock full of scholarly jargon. But after whispering a few questions to my in-house philosopher (“What’s he talking about? Pascal’s Wager?”) I realized that the thesis could be understood by considering a few statements:

1.) You cannot will yourself to believe in something that you know is not true.

On the surface, this seems fair enough. Boring actually. Yet when you think about it, you realize there are very few instances when you know something is not true. The statement reveals how often we must act without certain or even strong knowledge.

Everything turns on what it means to know something is not true, which is sticky. People seem to be perfectly capable of believing in all sorts of nonsense. Even when challenged with irrefutable evidence, nonsense-believers stick to their guns. The lecturer clarified by saying that all psychological rationalizations and self-deceptions must be excluded (he said this in a rather sticky way, the finer points of which I’m probably missing.) In other words, you can believe in all sorts of crazy things, as is evidenced everywhere, but you can’t say to yourself, “I’m gonna believe in this untrue thing!”

2.) You cannot will yourself to believe in something that you don’t know to be true.

A slightly different statement, but an entirely different meaning. The lecturer did not make this statement. I only bring it up to clarify the next one:

3.) You cannot will yourself to believe in something that you know you can’t know to be true.

Now it’s clear we’re dealing with the religious sphere, and the hidden premises that the existence of God, the afterlife, etc., cannot be known. I happen to agree that these cannot be known, but the lecturer concluded that we can’t will ourselves to believe in these cases. I’m not sure. The question that remained for me (and which I was too shy to bring up in the Q&A session) is this:

Can you will yourself to believe in something that you know you can’t know to be true if believing will make you happy? 

In other words, suppose you believe there is no evidence either way for the existence of God, you are Pascal’s intended audience (as I interpret him)—i.e., really and truly agnostic in heart and mind—can you then will yourself to believe for the sake of your well being? Because you want to?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but it occurred to me that the answer could affect practical scenarios, not just these theological questions. In our personal lives we often have to make decisions based on very little evidence, but we can do some research and make a choice based on probability. But what if we found ourselves in a state of what I’d call “epistemic neutrality” about the issue? Suppose the answer is not something just around the corner, but is in theory answerable. Time limits our query, rendering it somewhat analogous to the question of God’s existence. In other words, we know we can’t know the correct position or action to take, the answer is not likely to come in our lifetime, but we still have to make a choice now-ish. In these cases, suppose one live option will make you happy, the other will not. There is no harm that can come from choosing the “happy” option, and you’ll never know if you’re right or wrong. Can we then will ourselves to believe?

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Belief in a bottle! Problem solved.


Is it possible to will yourself to believe? What do you think?

June Gloom in California

I’m in Pebble Beach looking out over the Pacific—peaceful & conciliatory—and I don’t have much to complain about, especially when I think of the triple digit temps back home in Tucson. I don’t mind that I’m in the June gloom, as natives call it. I love the moodiness, the East Coast-ness. IMG_2344.JPGIt’s cold and damp, but people seem convinced that they can catch a tan just because it’s June and it’s California and they ought to be able to sprawl out on a sandy beach in bikinis. I wear pretty much every article of clothing I packed and shake my head with amused incredulity at those kids. They’re all young and hopeful, you see. The sun will come out in a minute.

Here’s the real June Gloom: Another mass shooting. Another round of talking heads discussing gun control and what could’ve been done to prevent this. Another round of nothing getting done. Granted, this time things are different given the nature of the shooting, the number of casualties, and the dreadful message which can’t be ignored. But do I have hope that something will change this time? IMG_2394.JPG

And to top it all off, Bernie loses quite clearly in CA. It’s over for him and all the young hopefuls. I guess I’m a young hopeful myself, having voted for him, although I’m a bit hesitant to flatter myself with that title (the “young” part). In truth, I wanted to see someone really try. I didn’t have hope that Bernie would change much, there’s simply too much in his way. I never expected a revolution, nor did I want one. So what did I want? I have to wonder—given my usual pessimism, a default position for me—did I want nothing more than a spectacle? Did I like him because he’s unique?

On the other hand, I believe in a lot of what Bernie stands for even though I don’t personally have much to gain by his proposed policies. I think his reasoning is sound. I didn’t at first. I think I said, out loud, “Free college? Is he nuts? Why is college suddenly a right?” Then Bernie went on to explain that college now is equivalent to what high school used to be. I’d always argued that college should not be necessary to get a decent job, and that it should not be dumbed down just to include those who don’t really care about anything but the piece of paper. Bernie, on the other hand, is coming at this problem from the other angle. Think of college as high school and everything changes. The solution then would be to make college free, to assume that is now the gold standard of what it means to be a moderately educated citizen. Hm. It works. He changed my mind. He changed my mind! Who does that?

Not to mention healthcare reform which we desperately need, an issue that’s extremely important and affects everyone. Too much to talk about there, certainly more than I can do in a blog post.

The point is, none of what he stood for sounded possible, but it felt good to vote for those ideas rather than some personality. To vote in a straightforward and simple way for what I think is right. Finally liberals get to stand on high moral ground, which is where many are in their hearts. Pragmatism is always the cleverest platform, the indisputable one, but it’s not to the point. When Bernie played nice with Hilary and let the email thing go, we saw someone who had greater schemes in mind, someone with much bigger fish to fry. Someone standing on higher ground. I think this is where Bernie’s strength comes from. Came from.

In fact, I don’t even like Bernie as a personality. He repeats himself to the point of inviting impromptu drinking games or throwing things at the screen, depending on your preference. A guy his age doing what he’s doing must be terribly neurotic. He’d be a ball buster at a dinner party. But so what? I don’t want to be friends with him. I agree with him. His ideas stand alone, on their own merit. And no thanks to the media, but that’s a rant for another day.

Did I feel the Bern on an emotional level? Probably in part. I did harbor a fantasy of watching Bernie verbally push Trump on his duff, rendering him momentarily speechless.

Hilary can do the same. I have to admit she’s a superb debater. But I don’t feel inspired by her, I don’t feel I’m voting for ideas. Her campaign ads feel like Bernie rip-offs. Her debates with Bernie felt like, “Oh what he said. I’ll do that too, but less. Since we all know none of these things will ever happen.” I could put all that aside. Once again, I don’t need to like her. But I feel I’m getting Obama II—the pragmatist. (Except his pragmatism felt real, like he genuinely wanted to heal the wounds of history, did it not?) And her recent victory feels a bit like a canned TV sitcom applause. She’s a woman, yes, fine. Obama’s black. Progress or a milestone? I’d say the latter. Progress comes from ideas, not from skin color or gender. Those external traits can be manufactured, as is evidenced by the Republican party’s endeavors in the past.

That said, unless something extraordinary happens, I’m voting for her. Obama II, fine. I guess. She has experience, she’s very competent and intelligent. She’ll push for women’s rights, but I hope she won’t do it at the expense of more important matters, just to hit that milestone and go down in history. She’ll get things done…and so will the Pacific as it carves out new niches in the shore, small spaces in which to find shelter from the wind. And really this kind of progress is all I could have hoped for with either candidate. There’s only so much one can do in these circumstances.

To end on a positive note, a la the evening news, here’s a dog on the beach trying to sail away with his ears:

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Geordie inhales sand and then licks it off.

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“Daddy, I’d totally join you if Mean Old Mommy would let me off-leash.”

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Note the sudden change of weather from the two photos above, which were taken just moments before this one…happy days are here again.

Going Plotless

In my last post I described the rule-breaking writing exercises I’m working on with my writing group. I promised to post an example:

Don’t write a tight plot. Sounds easy, right? But here we want to focus on how to write a story with multiple trajectories that don’t quite add up. How might this work?

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Trisha ran.

A mourning dove flew about, ready to lay some eggs, searching. For what? She’d know it when she saw it.

A roadrunner hopped up to the edge of a patio covered in glossy Saltillo tile, recently sealed. It watched the large docile creature sitting at a white bistro table, a man eating a turkey sandwich. The roadrunner didn’t know the turkey was turkey, but that didn’t matter. It wondered in that indistinct animal way whether the tile would be slippery, whether it was trustworthy. The roadrunner made its move.

A woman gazed out her front window over her kitchen sink. She always happened to be doing the dishes. Trisha appeared to her as a flash of sunny blonde hair moving in that smooth manner of golf carts, the ones that seem to glide over the hills, turning without needing to slow, almost liquidly. The girl didn’t have things in her ears, those gadgets they usually have. Good for her. Live a little. The woman went to the pantry and used a wooden spoon to knock down a box of low sodium wheat thins from a high shelf. It fell onto the counter and she dove out of its trajectory. It landed on its side and spun a bit, but stopped at the edge of the counter. A few crackers fell to the floor, and her Yorkie looked up at her with a question in his eyes. Was she wearing a bra? The woman looked down at her own very liberated chest. The Yorkie, being a Yorkie, acted like he wasn’t all that interested, but he circled around, his little paws tap-tapping coyly, always coming back.

The roadrunner hopped up, landing on the hard solid foot of the large docile creature who appeared to be taking in some form of nourishment.

The man did not move a muscle. He tried to stop breathing. He couldn’t believe his luck. What a story this would make, a roadrunner landing on his shoe, begging for food.

“Go on, Yogi. You can eat it,” the woman squealed, pointing at a nearby cracker, snapping her fingers. “C’mon.” Live a little. She didn’t want to bend over to pick up the crackers. Her back hurt.

The roadrunner hopped back down, forgetting its previous concern about the tile. It was only a little harder to walk on the tile.

The Yorkie sniffed at the perfect squares which were somehow not broken from the impact of the fall.

Trisha turned the corner. Easy enough given the perfect curve of the sidewalk, one which widened at turns. This curved bit of sidewalk had been inspected recently for tripping hazards (anything over 1/4”), along with the rest of the street.

The Yorkie’s nostrils flared. Millions and trillions of bits of information flew into a black tunnel that opened into a wet cave. Things we don’t know.

In any case, the sidewalk wasn’t the problem. A palo verde stuck its green claw out into Trisha’s path. It reached for her as if animated by her arrival, but really it dipped in the gust of wind which had just picked up violently for a second. The green claw had smaller green claws, all of which were armed with needles. All this claw-ness would later be masked by thousands or millions or some other high number of flowers, cartoon shapes of crayon yellow. But it wasn’t that time of year. Now the palo verde looked like a massive pile of homogeneously green sticks randomly stacked on top of a wandering trunk. The trunk the same blah-green as the sticks, except for a few brown marks where it’d been scorched.

The microburst of wind and the bob of this palo verde branch sent some number of insects into the uniform blue sky. It was the kind of dusty day that obscured distant mountains.

In a swimming pool in a Santa Fe style house way out on the east side—granite counter! stainless appliances heated pool travertine thru out. Gorgeous Mtn.views a Must See!—a lizard clung to a vertical island, a bit of mineral deposit which had collected on the edge of the pool. Its “fingers” worked best on natural things, not so well on slippery tile, and the lizard just happened to be lucky enough to drop over on a spot where the minerals had deposited themselves over the tile. The lizard eyed the water each time the wind kicked up a slight wave. If it weren’t for the occasional eye movement, this lizard would look exactly like the lizard a few blocks down that had gotten itself stuck in-between a window pane and a screen. A perfect specimen of natural taxidermy, fried in the sun, still clinging to the screen, immortalized forever like a pressed flower. That lizard was about the same size as this one, about the size of two quarters placed side-by-side. A cute little guy. It was that time of year for lizards to be out and about, and for them to be about this size. This lizard clinging to the mineral deposit, it flattened itself into a slit of shade from the overhanging concrete edge of the pool. The overhang saved it from frying in the sun. It also prevented it from escaping. Not in any real way, but in a lizard-brained way. In the same way that the window-fried lizard could’ve theoretically gotten free if it had known how to go out the way it came in.

The man smiled and called out, “Here roadrunner,” tossing out a piece of bread. What a story.

The roadrunner hopped back, dodging an object. It stopped at a safe distance and reconsidered.

The palo verde moved very slowly toward the things that gave it life. What gave this particular palo verde tree life, or more of it, temporarily, was the growth of this branch in this direction.

The HOA had not counted this branch as a maintenance issue since it didn’t obstruct the path.

One hot current of air wanted to go one way, a cooler current wanted to go another way, and there was a sort of atmospheric traffic jam. The palo verde branch got jostled down, out of harm’s way. It bent, but didn’t break.

The pool lizard clung on.

The other lizard clung too.

The endless blue sky so uniform it might as well have been a paint color sample stayed right where it was.

The man threw another piece of bread, bigger this time.

The pool lizard tried to escape, but rediscovered the problem of the overhang. Now it faced the other direction, away from the water.

The roadrunner looked at the bread. It wanted the turkey, not the bread.

The man threw another piece of bread, further away this time.

The roadrunner walk-hopped away.

The man called out to it, but the roadrunner disappeared into a wash, behind some treacherously thorny stuff which the man didn’t feel like getting into.

The mourning dove picked up a stick, flew it to some high-traffic location which she’d picked out for her nest, tried to fit the stick into her nest and noted several big animated creatures moving in the proximity of her real estate. She dropped the stick onto the ground. She stood on the edge of her new digs—the lid of a box filled with garden tools, tools that needed to be used on a regular basis now, since it was that time of year—and looked at nothing for a while with her thoughtless black eyes. The big creatures backed away. She didn’t look at the stick she’d just dropped. She didn’t look at all the other sticks she’d dropped, the ones right there. She flew off in search of a new stick.

Trisha ducked.

The roadrunner came back to the man. The man finally gave him what he wanted, a bit of turkey. The roadrunner gobbled this down and waited for more, which came forthwith. The roadrunner ate as much as he could, then waited for a big one, a nice fat slice. He snapped it up in his lethal beak and ran off with it to find his mate, who waited for him behind some prickly pear. He showed it to her.

The man with the sandwich chased the roadrunner down into the wash to see where it was going with the turkey. He saw the female roadrunner and this confirmed what he’d heard about roadrunner mating rituals. My discarded turkey is like a giant diamond ring. Turkey bling. He couldn’t wait to tell his friends how he helped a fellow male get laid. The female seemed ready to submit, but at the last second she ran away with the Albertson’s deli meat dangling from her beak.

The palo verde got a few of Trisha’s golden hairs, but she got one of its claws, one of the dead ones, one which had dried out and for that reason snapped off easily. She swiped it off her head without missing a step. The stick flew onto some blah beige landscaping rocks and rested there, virtually hidden.

The man with the sandwich tripped and landed in the prickly pear. In his palms there no longer resided a turkey sandwich, but instead a story, one he would not share.

The mourning dove picked up a new stick. This was a perfectly good stick. It caught her eye because shiny things were attached to it. She flew her treasure to her new home. A big featherless biped stood near her space. She didn’t notice until she’d nearly reached her abode, at which point startled, dropped her golden stick, fluttered into a nearby mesquite. Another nest grew under her box, a better nest than her own, but she didn’t know. She flew away, searching for a new stick.

“Get into the fucking car.”

Trisha ran faster. She knew she couldn’t out run a car, but she ran anyways.

A wave of pool water splashed the lizard and cooled its scaly back, but it did not take this as a boon. It twirled frantically, its tail whipping. Then a basket scooped it up. It’s little legs flailed randomly until it fell over the the edge of the basket and into the cool blue.

The Yorkie brought his delicate pink tongue down to a square. The square lifted, stuck to his wet tongue, then dropped. “Yes, you can eat it. Go on.” He looked up with a question in his eyes.

“Treat!”

Yogi took the square into his teeth, carefully, so as not to lose a crumb, and absconded with it to his hiding space between the ottoman and the couch.


I never meant to write this much, but I found myself needing a lot of space to include multiple POVs. Another woman in the writing group managed to complete this exercise in less than one page. She used a sort of free-association to tell her tale, but instead of creating a thematic unity the way I’ve done here, she literally linked the story together by referencing the last sentence. I’d never seen that done before. It worked well in a strange way.

Have you ever gone plotless? Was it on purpose? What did you learn? 

Rule-Breaking Writing Exercises

I’m in a writing group that’s been going on for years now. Normally we follow a certain schedule (if you’re interested in how our Garden Group operates, see this), but recently I’ve decided to shake things up a bit. I asked everyone in the group to tell me a rule he or she generally abides by. I explained it doesn’t have to be a rule in a prescriptive sense—I didn’t want this to be something the writer felt must be written in stone, especially since most of us know those rules are rare—but, I said, it can be. Each writer gave the following:

  1. Write from one POV at a time. Show, don’t tell.
  2. Give authenticity of space, sense of place.
  3. Be sure to have a tight plot and believable, likable characters. Write something that can be read on an airplane while at the same time giving a deeper commentary. Shoot for realism…in other words, no idealized characters.
  4. Use all the senses.
  5. Nail the voice first, then worry about the plot.

(The last one was mine.)

Then I proposed that we continue to do our regular novel submissions and critiques, but with these we’ll submit very short rule-breaking exercises based on the above. The point of the exercises is not to write something publishable, but to see what can be learned from rule-breaking and from each other. For example, I feel pretty confident about rule 4, but 5 and 8 (mine) will be really hard.

Here’s the agenda (the third author’s rules had to be broken down into several exercises):

  1. Write in omniscient. Tell, don’t show. (Of course, you must show to some degree, but do a great deal of telling.)
  2. Write in whatever POV or tense you like, but give NO sense of place. You can give other sensory details, or not. Try to think of what would justify doing this.
  3. Don’t write a tight plot. Sounds easy, right? But here we want to focus on how to write a story with trajectories that don’t quite add up. How might this work?
  4. Write an evil protagonist. A veritable villain with no redeeming qualities, not even a sad, broken childhood to explain our villain’s character. Pure. Evil.
  5. Write a beach read. Don’t be deep, no greater commentary, nothing intellectual. Imagine you’re writing the next best seller and your agent tells you not to go anywhere near literary. You’re gonna make a ton of money. Movie deals. You might hate yourself a little…or not? Can this work?
  6. Write something with a big point, without any aim to please a general audience. It can be scholarly or not. The tone is up to you.
  7. Don’t use senses in an evocative way. You can let the reader know the story’s taking place in a grocery store, but you have to leave it at that. We’re not looking at the flowers in the grocery store, not seeing the color of someone’s shirt, not hearing the cash register…unless these are crucial for the plot.
  8. Write a tight plot (keep it simple, maybe even cliché, since this is only a quick exercise) and the voice should be not only secondary, but utterly bland. Since “voicelessness” is impossible, think of someone who’s conventional, not someone who bores you to death (since this would actually count as a strong voice).

So far we’ve gone through the first three rule-breaking exercises, and here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Omniscient + Tell, Don’t Show.

Telling worked best when the telling had either a strong narrative voice and/or told of very specific and interesting details. In longer works, telling is often used to move the story forward without having to read about people opening car doors and doing boring things to get from point a to b. Here, telling served a different purpose, yet it turned out not to be a big problem.

Omniscience, however, creates distance, which was problematic in a short writing exercise. There simply wasn’t room to dip into the inner thoughts of multiple characters without “head hopping.” The way to avoid head hopping is to either avoid dipping into a close third person, or use that close third person to purposefully create a sense of chaos. Controlled chaos. The voices of the characters must be distinct both from each other and from the narrative omniscient voice. I felt we all came close to pulling this off, but we all needed minor tweaks to clarify.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.

No sense of place/No authenticity of space

This exercise seemed to be the most difficult so far, at least for me. I tried to use the setting as a minor point of tension, a little question in the reader’s mind: “Where is this person? What is she doing?” I tried to avoid describing the room, sticking closely to my character’s thoughts. I wrote from the POV of a woman involved in the Milgram experiment (banality of evil, compliance to authority.)  Unfortunately, everyone guessed this was the Milgram experiment and they imagined the location/setting without my having to describe it. I imagine if I’d chosen to write something more original, I might’ve gotten away with it. But hey, plots are hard to come by. For an exercise, I figured it’d be all right to steal.

Others chose to establish a setting, then alter it in a way that wasn’t expected. They ended up writing surrealistically, and that led to an unreliable narrator. The two combined can work, but only for short bursts. Surrealism is difficult to pull off, and I find it much easier to take when I know I can trust the character generally, and I know that what I’m reading is an altered state.

Since these exercises were “short bursts,” the writing turned out to be interesting and, in my opinion, new territory for these writers.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.

Don’t write a tight plot.

The joke was inevitable: “I do this all the time! This exercise will be easy.” Doing this successfully is a different matter.

What came out of this was interesting. I ended up doing something very similar to another writer—I kept a thematic consistency to make up for the lack of plot. You get the outlines of what could happen with all the dangling threads based on consistent mood and theme.

One writer commented that the imagery seemed richer than our usual writing.

Another writer noted that the reader fills in the gaps, that the lack of plot encourages a more active participation on the part of the reader to make sense of the story.

I ended up writing something slightly out-of-the-box for me. I tend to write about the mundane, and I did it here too, but this time I played around with POV in a way I hadn’t before.

Note: We all wrote dark stuff.


The common denominator: Dark stuff. We haven’t figured out why. My hypothesis is that, in a writing exercise, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. This gives us license to go there.

Another thing I noticed is that many of us wrote way more than a few paragraphs. Some even submitted the exercise as a short story.

What are your writing rules/tendencies? Have you ever tried to break them?

If you feel so moved, feel free to share your rule-breaking exercise in the comments. You can break your own rule or use one of the above as a prompt. (I’ll share one of mine in the next post.)