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On 50,038 Words

11 Feb

Poor, neglected blog. Life has been all words lately, with none to spare for you.

Mainly, it was the National Novel Writing Month, fondly NaNoWriMo. I did it! I won! I never win anything. But I won that. Winning means that I completed the challenge, 50,000 words in one month, the month of November, which was a busy month, what with holiday dinner and parties and final-essay grading. The glow lasted a while, several weeks at least. I did it! I wrote 50,038 words in one month, 158 pages, all original, all mine. That does not mean the beast I ended up with was a novel. Or only by a huge stretch of imagination. Maybe a series of stories, some linked, some not. I do not care. NaNoWriMo has a space for rebels. Next year I will claim my place among them. What I ended up with was mostly crap. Throwaway, or maybe hold on to the idea for some better means of execution some day. Most of that throwaway junk was stories taken from personal experience. I can’t seem to step away, even from childhood, enough to write with humor and interest about my life, except the recent bits. It always comes out tawdry. Tobias Wolff can do that, write with unfiltered honesty and humor about people and experiences from his life. He is a master. He also signed two books for me. He is my hero, and what I strive for. But turning outward seems to work best for me.

I am not a disciplined person. But I am also (something I noticed as the finish line loomed) not a quitter. Me. I never realized. A good lesson to learn about oneself. As an undisciplined person, I often got stuck and fell behind. Okay. The average daily word count to finish on time is 50,000 words divided by 30 days, or 1,667 words per day. I started strong, with a couple of good days over 2,000. Then, oh, a 1,300 word day, and a completely skipped day. It happens easily. You get stuck for ideas, you falter, you slip, you stare at the paper or screen, you go back and read what you’ve written, which, frankly, isn’t great. You are uninspired. But, I am not a quitter. I determined to do this thing, no matter what I ended up with.

Suddenly you have a 4,000-5,000 word day staring you in the face, the enormous number you need to catch up. Just write something. Something. Anything. It doesn’t matter what, as long as it’s original. As long as it’s you writing it, now.  Even if it says “I am writing complete crap, I have nothing to say, this is pointless, this is stupid, I hate this, come on brain, come up with something!” A few times I resorted to what I tell my students to do, just keep pen on paper/fingers on keyboard, keep going.  NaNoWriMo is a community, though I mostly lurked at the edges of it. I didn’t want to meet real live other NaNoWriMos in my lovely town. I didn’t want the pressure, and, frankly, I didn’t want to spend time going out to a coffee house rather than scribbling away. But I did read tips, inspirations, fun ways to procrastinate. One tip was about being stuck. I think it said “bring in a Ninja, bring in a ghost” or vampire, or other improbable creature. I don’t care about Ninjas or ghosts, and vampires have been done to everlasting death. So I thought a bit, not long, a few minutes tops, and a rhinoceros appeared in my head, just appeared.

Back in the inconceivably ancient past, the 1980s, in Long Beach, my now husband of many years, Gary, his roommate and our close friend, Tony, and I used to sit around Tony’s rented house with Larry the dog as our audience, reading from Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist plays. At the Doolittle Theatre in 1988 we saw a production of The Bald Soprano and other works read by, among others, Rene Auberjonois, Patty Duke, and Tom Waits. The Tom Waits. The playwright himself was to have been there, but was aged and ailing in Paris. I love Ionesco. And years and years after loving his plays I lived for two non-consecutive years in his birth country of Romania. So, a rhinoceros it was, as a tribute or allusion, but without the theme of fascism. Oh, didn’t I say? In 1959 he wrote a play titled Rhinoceros.

I didn’t know where my rhinoceros would lead. I just started with an adolescent girl seeing an improbable animal outside her typical American suburban home on a bright spring Saturday. From there it rolled. This was something I’d heard of (and like allergies, before I experienced them myself, didn’t really believe in). I took an idea and sat down with my laptop and let my fingers go clickety click, tappety tap, and let the words come through them. Just flow. They came like water from a tap, so easily. Never has that happened to me before. I was happy with what came out. I was excited. I didn’t want to stop, but had to sleep, and then to work, and then to get back to it the next day. It seemed longer, days and days, because of the intensity of the writing project. In two days I had a story, with a beginning, middle and end, of 6,457 words, 19 pages double spaced. And it wasn’t crap at all. This is embarrassing to say, but I have to be honest: when I read the finished story I choked up. It seemed like something much larger than I’d started with, than I’d thought. Something about what we see and miss, and what we have to give up, and how we have to keep moving along with our lives.

The whole month went that way: slow and plodding and grueling, then quick, fluid, delightful. Sometimes I made myself laugh. It seemed kind of schizo, but there it was. My favorite thing to do was to write for a while, then do a word count, reenter my word count into the NaNoWriMo site, hit refresh, and see my improved progress chart, my words remaining diminishing, words per day to finish on time shrinking.  During this month we ate a lot of pasta, or I’d make big pots of chili or soup to eat for days. Or easy casseroles. Usually I’m more focused on cooking, planning menus, flipping through foodie magazines and cookbooks, searching cooking websites. It’s obsessive, and it was good to switch over to a different obsession for a change.

Still, even after a triumph, like the rhinoceros story, I’d get stuck. Once I pushed through the block by deciding to write one sentence. Back in grad school we literature majors all had to take pedagogy classes, as teaching was part of our education (and the way we earned our tuition waivers). I remember the idea in one such class of having students write a “labyrinthine sentence,” a single sentence that is just one long string of clauses, lists, parenthetical asides. I began a sentence that became a list and continued till 1,808 words, 6 pages later, about death, the big joke.  I was having fun! Playing with words. Just playing, like a kid, having given myself permission, because I am not a quitter, to just keep writing and if that entailed playing, so be it!

There are other parts I like. A story about Gus, a despondent sign twirler who tries not to be noticed, and one about bare teenage feet in summer, and one about how kids don’t believe in cold.  Maybe half is worth keeping, and that isn’t bad.

So I spent November in wordsmithery, broken up by bouts of proofreading, my other job (can you spell f-r-u-c-t-o-o-l-i-g-o-s-a-c-c-h-a-r-i-d-e-s?). Then came the holidays, travel, parties attended and thrown, no time for writing. Time for not writing, in fact, a break from writing. And now, a new quarter with two freshman writing classes. I’d love to make them care like I do. Questions of how to pass this caring on. How to help them feel it like playing sometimes. How to break them out of the ruts they were placed in in high school, the 5-paragraph essay, the topic sentence, the inverted pyramid.

I’ll keep working on that as long as I teach. It’s always an experiment. And I’ll keep writing till I can’t anymore. I’ve had my break, almost two months now. Back to the beautiful grind.


On Silence

7 Oct

This blog has nothing to do with language. Or, rather, it is all to do with language, the excess of language, people’s inability to shut up.

I think I know what it is. Technology has changed our brains. Anyone over 40: in your 20s, could you even conceive of people walking about talking loudly to the sidewalk and window and shrub about their stds or (to be fair, it’s not just the young) incontinence? No. You couldn’t. I know that. But as we all know, we gave up privacy. I didn’t, or at least I didn’t know I had. But it’s gone. We can be tracked in any number of ways, our bodies scanned, our movements recorded by some Big Brother eye hidden in streetlamps, social networks make it easy for people we do not like to find us. There is no place in the electronic world to hide. And it’s invaded every nook and cranny of the public world as well: have you been in a nice restaurant lately that did not have a TV on? Have you been to a chic outdoor mall lately that did not have someone’s crappy taste in pop music piped onto the street? (Okay, that’s a reference to a specific place, in Ohio, but you know what I mean.) It’s in our ears, our heads, our mouths, on our clothes. It’s in our DNA.

This is my theory. People are really, really different now than when I was a kid, a kid of 20+ or 30+. They are made different.

Recently my husband and I went to a show. It was a show about Miles Davis, great musicians playing drums and sax and bass and piano and of course trumpet, mixed in with images and recordings of Davis speaking and poems and short pieces read really well by a live narrator. I used to think it was just bad luck (bad luck those yahoos sat next to us/in front of us/behind us in the movie theater/playhouse/concert hall), but now I see that it doesn’t matter where we are. They are all around us, all ages, all backgrounds. Well, no, most of them around us are college educated or educators, professionals, students, undergrad and grad. Most of the events we go to are movies at the indie theater and performances on campus. So they’re not from all social strata. They’re from ours.

I don’t go out to listen to yahoos (unless I’m seeing a play of Gulliver, I suppose, but then it would be upper case). I go out to hear the words and/or music of the performers. I pay for the privilege of seeing/hearing them. I go for the experience. We were talking about why this twittering (not that kind, the word that came before the technology, that meant the sound of little birds: bssbssbss) gets to us so much, and I know for me it’s because I get deep into something. I feel the music creeping up my legs and arms, snaking around me. I feel the words falling on my skin and inside my head. I envision what I hear. I imagine. I let myself be with the characters, up there, in an unreal place. I want to let myself be there, wherever it is, a real or imagined place. Then wham. Bssbssbss.  Chatter chatter chatter. I’m out of the experience of the performance, and in the experience of sharing a theater and a world with people who can’t keep their mouths shut, not for two hours, not for an hour, not for half an hour.

I want to turn and ask them why they paid good money, like the rest of us, to come to a performance in order to spend it chattering away and missing it, and whether they might just want to continue their conversation outside. Actually, I want to sock them. Hard. I want to yell and jump over my seat and attack them with teeth and nails and elbows and fists and feet in heavy boots. But I fancy myself a civilized person, not drunk enough to do that, so I might, at most, whisper “shhhh” while feeling my blood pressure rise.  Then I will do my best to lean away from them, and sometimes cup my ears to block them out a little more.

Before you pooh-pooh my tirade for being that of an old Luddite. I’m not. I love my laptop. I love my Nano (RIP Steve Jobs). I love watching new movies at home before they are in theaters. I love my coffee maker (I could bow down before that coffee maker that brews the coffee so that it’s hot and fresh when I drag myself out of bed early in the a.m.). I love all of the appliances that beep at me, or play annoying little tunes: dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer, cell phone. I also love trees, but that doesn’t make me a Luddite. What I don’t love, or like, what I actually hate, is that I fear a future will come where people like me, like us, just stay home rather than ever venture out to a movie/play/concert. Or maybe, as Andre Gregory imagines after his version of the fall of civilization, underground organizations will spring up where those of us who crave an experience, in a room full of silent, silent, entranced perhaps, strangers, can get what we want, for a price.

Today I thank the improbable pair of Tessie and Ralph for settling down together and having their second son

6 Jul

I don’t dare question the mystery of our meeting, or demean it by calling it “fate” or some like term. I was 22. We were in an English class together, a large one. I believe Gary could mainly see my back. That’s why I thought it was my back that first attracted him. It was a nice back in those days, very strong. We had a mutual friend, Robert, who reluctantly introduced us at the Cal State Long Beach bar. I was drifting then. With my best friend Kathleen Alva, I had sworn off men. We had no further use for them. We’d had enough of arrogant, self-centered, childish, disrespectful, mean, stupid, bastards. We loved each other. We loved going to Spatz and dancing till closing, then to the diner on PCH to share a huge omelet at 3 a.m.

I say I was drifting. I had no concept of future. I didn’t believe in it, actually. I only believed in each day. I played at the idea of school, taking classes that sounded good to me. I don’t even think I was an English major. Education probably, something practical. But I hated those classes. I was a loner, too. I lived in a ratty little apartment with a single room, murphy bed and roaches. It was my first place alone, with no roommate. To this day, the smell of Raid slams me back to that room. Though I was drifting, I did have a job that I clung to like a lifeboat, in a department store called Mervyn’s. I moved from sales floor to stock clerk. I was incredibly strong. I worked there for 8 years. The thought of quitting filled me with fear. I didn’t believe in the future, but I knew I needed money to pay rent and eat, and go to shows and buy beer and cigarettes.

Gary met me. He wanted to meet me. Why, well, I won’t say. It probably wasn’t my sparkling wit or intellect. Pure physical attraction, I think.

I was small, strong, and wild. I thought of myself as a poet. What a larf! I wore mostly black and dark green clothes, and stuff I got from thrift stores. I had a favorite pair of green jeans and some green Vans, a long black skirt with buckles all the way up, black ballet flats. I wore berets a lot. My hair was sometimes unruly curls and bright red, sometimes bleached blond and cropped short like a boy’s. I always wore black liner all around my eyes and dark polish on my long nails. Gary came up to me in the bar. He wore a brown wool blazer and had a large red beard. Robert said our names, and Gary grinned at me. He sat down and started talking, not just talking but asking questions. I can’t even remember if I had any thoughts then. It seems like my mind was full of useless stuff, in no particular order. I was full of energy and quite a lot of rage. Gary had a lot of friends, who much later became my friends. He was a tutor. He wrote and drew and played guitar. He listened to old music, jazz and blues, and old rock, the Beatles and Stones. I knew only the music I’d abandoned (happily, all that big hair long solo crap, all that arrogant bastard crap), and the punk music I’d embraced. Gary liked The Clash, but wasn’t really into punk. I don’t know if he’d have liked the shows at Fender’s where I always emerged hot and bruised and happy. I couldn’t explain. I didn’t know how. Later he’d start liking more of it. It took some sort of articulation, but then I was all feeling, no reason. I learned from him that I didn’t need to exclude music that was equally real and unproduced just because it was old or wasn’t punk. There were old blues guys who were raw. And the voice of Tom Waits.

Our first date, the historic date. Gary asked what I was doing this Friday or Saturday night (I forget which, but it was a regular date night). I told him with some arrogance that I was going to a poetry reading at the LaFayette Hotel, where one of my friends was on the schedule. Gary was going too. Actually, his name was on the flier, in big letters. Hah! I didn’t know. I was suddenly impressed. He didn’t talk about himself, I guess. He didn’t think it was that big a deal. Did I blush? I was hard and cool. I must have swallowed my surprise. But it was fixed. We’d meet there.

The LaFayette Hotel was a city block on, was it First Street? Fourth Street? It was downtown. It was a compound, so multiple streets. On one side was Fender’s, where I spent most Friday nights. On one side was a bar. There was a maze of ballrooms inside (Fender’s was Fender’s Ballroom), there were venues for weddings and, apparently, for poetry readings. I don’t think this was a regular spot though. I suppose people lived in that building too.

The reading was good. Gary’s poems were funny, witty. Not all angst (actually, no angst). They were observations, mainly, clear-eyed, unpretentious, real. My friend’s stuff, on the other hand, was pretty self-indulgent. I didn’t know. I was learning though.

We moved from the venue to the bar. It was jammed with people. I won’t tell the story of the woman I came with, who kept rubbing against Gary when she passed him to get a drink. I just remember thinking it was odd. Gary brought me a drink, more than one. There were yelled introductions to some of his friends. Joey in particular, I remember. I don’t recall if Robert was there. Probably. My romantic memory was this: I had to go pee. The restroom was hard to find. At least, it seemed like it. The directions were very complicated. Gary escorted me. We went down hallways, past nooks and glass walls, wending our way. I was undoubtedly a bit drunk, which might have contributed to its seeming such a maze.

He took me there, and on the way back pushed open a door to an empty, dark ballroom. It must have had chandeliers. He danced me around. Did he sing some appropriate tune? He had and has a wonderful voice, sweet, lean, lithe.

I was about to abandon my pact with Kathy. No men. But since I didn’t believe in the future, it was probably going to be only for a short time. All relationships were like that. You found out who the other person really was, a psycho, a selfish bastard, a manipulative brute, or, worst, a dullard. You left.

We went back to Gary’s apartment with a few other people. Soon I was on Gary’s lap, his guitar laid across mine, and he was playing Beatles’ songs. I stayed there for days. I remember it this way: we never left the room. But that’s impossible. I had to work, and even go to classes on occasion. Gary had to work and actually go to classes. I had to have clothes to wear. He was on a bland diet for his stomach. He cooked me poached fish, poached eggs. It was good food, and more real food than I was used to having at home. At most I’d throw some fish sticks into my disgusting oven.

Gary told me he was going to leave in about six months. He had it all planned, a year in Spain. He’d graduate and then go off to live in Barcelona with its romantic place in history and literature. He’d set money aside, a little. He was going to get a job teaching English. He’d said he was going. I learned that he meant what he said, that he made plans and followed them.

So, that was the end, I was sure. I went back to being mostly solitary. I had no phone, so it was hard to find me. It was okay, because I was stubbornly independent. I hated people doing things for me. I never asked for help (well, the occasional bit of credit at the corner market to get to the next paycheck, but that’s it). I’d walk miles and miles rather than accept the offer of a ride. I don’t know what it was. I didn’t want to owe anyone anything. Anyway, I liked my lone-wolf life. I could do what I wanted. And I could always stay with Kathy in Huntington Beach when I got stranded at work (usually by public transport: oh yeah, I had no car), and get some social interaction that way. I had a few neighborhood friends, gay couple, crazy old vet. I think I took classes less and less, then not at all.

Gary wrote letters from Spain. Many beautiful letters. They were detailed, sometimes lonely. I wasn’t a good correspondent. I didn’t know where this was going to go, if anywhere. The future wasn’t really part of my plans. Ha! I had no plans, except to keep living, working, going to shows, reading, and scribbling bad poetry.

Then he came back. And wanted to be with me. And I gave in. And our lives changed. He took me places, he made me go back to school, he made me do everything that was good for me. The years of Tony and us began, Larry the dog, the detached room over the garage, the black and white floor, Tony’s piano, movies, our historic trip through Mexico and Guatemala, happy hour martinis at The Paradise Cafe, Alison, Susan, Millie, Roy, Joey, Murray, Penny, Steve, Bob, Jim, Locklin and Zepeda and The Reno Room. But that’s another chapter.

To My Mom, on her Daughter Turning 50

15 Mar

From the first year I was conscious – age 1? age 2? – this day in mid-March belonged to me alone, centered around me, my wants, my memories, my identity. This year for the first time I thought of this: there in the snapshot, on a porch in Kearney Nebraska, is my beautiful mother, dark flashing eyes, sculpted cheeks, short dark hair swept up and back, wearing a tomato-red wool turtleneck sweater. She is smiling, but maybe there’s a tint of fear back there. After all, she is young, only 24, and this is all new. This baby in her arms that has and will continue to change her life in ways impossible to predict.

I took that sweater, though I don’t remember when, or if I asked permission. I’ve worn it over the years like a charm, an inanimate thing that binds us together through time. Like I took Grandma’s red lipstick in the gold-tone cylinder after her funeral. It smelled and tasted like her kisses. I didn’t want anything else of hers, just that memory. I’ve worn her lipstick too, or did, back when I could pull off that deep red. Now it’s become hard and waxy anyway, and taken on the earthy smell of decaying minerals.

This is my 50th birthday. Our culture measures life this way, marking decades as milestones. It doesn’t feel that way, though. Does anyone feel a new age? Other than those that mean some change in status: draft age, drinking age, retirement age, too old to have children, whatever age that is. When I think of myself, my life, I see it all at once, all overlapping, not a moment but all moments. When I think of you my mother, I think of all times of you, of you making cakes that looked like Easter eggs or shamrocks, of you singing (performing) Tom Lehrer songs for us, of you watching me, worrying over me, feeling mortified while I did or said some foolish thing, threw a tantrum in a theater lobby, or scolded the wrong little boy on a train, or refused to dress quickly to rush to the hospital with my little brother, scalded by coffee. Of you crying once because I forgot your birthday. Of you taking care of shelter cats and sheltering a homeless woman. Of you visiting a boy we knew after he went to prison. Of you folk dancing, disco dancing, Western swing dancing, ballroom dancing. Of you making baklava for Christmas, of you sleeping well unlike most of us, of you reading to me from A Child’s Garden of Verses, of you holding strangers’ hands on an airplane, of you wrapping hotdogs in foil to take to the drive-in movie, of you making care packages for women in shelters, of you tinting your hair a lighter color, of you shopping for your daughters, of you on the boat, pretty in a swimsuit, of you crocheting at the public pool with the other mothers, of you in your red and purple outfits, of you reading presidential biographies and mysteries, of you unpacking clothes so neatly folded in your suitcase, of you driving because you hate to fly, of you eating sandwiches on the floor of the vacant house we were cleaning, of you in our new house, of you in all times and places.

This year, for the first time, my imagination on my birthday stretched out beyond the self contained in this skin, to you, not for having borne me, for the biological act that is no different for any woman, but for all the years of actual life, to acknowledge this shared moment, the day your oldest child turns 50.


15 Oct

Like Mrs. Krabappel when she hears the word “embiggens” for the first time, I never heard the word “actuate” before I moved to Athens. (Miss Hoover responds in my head, “I don’t know why not. It’s a perfectly cromulant word.”)

I think about the word “actuate” most often when we’re driving to or from Parkersburg, WV. It’s a half hour drive through beautiful green-now-turning-red-and-purple hills. We go for a change of scenery that doesn’t require the investment of time/gas/money of a trip to Columbus. We go for commerce, not nature or art or food, to rifle though the racks of a chain bookstore or browse furniture stores, or check out the stock at a different big box diy store.

On this day, the cable (thus internet) down because of the previous night’s storms, we drive to Parkersburg and I notice, as I always do as we cross the bridge and pay our 50-cent toll, the sign reading “no parking on the berm.” I like the fact that the sign says “berm,” and wonder if other drivers think about that word. It has a quaint and literary ring to it. I’d never seen the word “berm” used on a road sign before taking this drive to Parkersburg. clears this up. The second definition is “shoulder of a road,” but only in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia. Now I like that four states have their own independent definition of a word. Maybe it’s archaic, four states determined to hold on to an old fashioned usage. Or maybe it’s the uniqueness that they like, a holding out against terminological conformity.

It’s the sign for the berm that makes me think of the sign in Athens at the bottom of North May at the stoplight, that has an arrow pointing under the advice, “stop here to actuate signal.” Why “actuate”? Why not “activate”? was my immediate thought. The first time I saw that sign I thought it was laughably odd. An oddball sign. It too has almost a quaint sound to it. But I don’t know if that’s just because it’s a word we don’t see or hear much. It is an old word, comes from the Latin, usage dates back to the 17th century, but I had never seen it on a sign, never heard it spoken, before moving to this place.

I like to imagine the sign makers for these cities as prim and reticent, dressed practically in quiet shoes and muted colors, wearing thin wire-framed glasses, sitting at desks covered not with laptops and high-tech gadgets, but piled with books, dusty dog-eared dictionaries and thesauruses and compilations of quotations, hand-lettering their signs with modest fonts, before turning them over to be stamped into metal and screwed to steel posts.

So much pleasure in a couple of words.


10 Sep

My friends Ally and Tim gave me the word “lethologica.” When I experience lethologica, it is the only word I can remember. This makes it a remarkably useful word, because most people don’t know what it means, and so think you are being smart to pull up such a lofty-sounding term so quickly. Lethologica is an actual affliction of the temporal lobe, something serious and debilitating, but we use it in a looser sense to mean a temporary forgetting of a word, especially the key word, the one you need to complete your thought. Is there a word for this, more precisely this, or are we doomed to such trite and ugly and inaccurate expressions as  “senior moment” and “brain fart”?

I tell my students that they should know this word. “All you need is this one word to impress people even while your brain is clamoring to remember what it is you want to say.” They probably don’t need it yet. I don’t forget, though it’s getting harder to believe that I once had one, what a 20-year-old brain is like. I could abuse it with all kinds of substances (including the insecticide I sprayed around the Murphy bed every night in my first apartment in Long Beach, the first one I shared with no one. I wonder how that changed me, breathing that noxious stuff. The smell agitates me now, though then it was a comfort. I could be pretty sure no cockroaches would crawl over my hands and face while I was sleeping. That I stood that place, and for three years, is further evidence of the gulf between the almost-50 me and the barely-20 me. I romanticized life in a scummy apartment building with an ironic name, with patched carpet and an old ice box, with dim halls and winos in the entryway, with an assortment of down-and-out grannies, spooked Vietnam vets, crack dealers, and colorful queens, with no phone or TV, where I wrote poems and read and listened to music or went out, by myself if no one was around to keep me company. But I digress). I could abuse it with all kinds of substances, mostly beer and martinis, and starve it of actual food, starve it of sleep, and still work and study all day and party all night. And still, though I was never quick-witted (only longing to be Oscar Wilde), I could say the occasional bright thing, I could talk about books I was reading, I could remember names and words.

I wonder if we have so much stuffed in there that some of it has to leak out. Just numbers must take up a good chunk: social security, phones, addresses, passwords, combinations, birthdays, bank accounts, prices, ages. And add to numbers names, names of pets, children, ancestors, nieces and nephews, friends, actors and directors, musicians, characters in novels and stories, writers, politicians, activists, historical figures, neighbors, streets, towns, buildings, students, administrators, bosses, co-workers. Add to names and numbers how to do things, where to find things, where a recipe is, where the keys are, how a car works, directions, where the birth certificates are. And add to those all of the memories of people and places and feelings, all the remembered slights (those should be the first to go, but stubbornly stick around for lifetimes), places lived, memorable meals eaten, conversations, ideas.

Nowadays I mainly teach. That means standing up in front of a tough crowd (even the good ones, and I have many, can be demanding), trying to remember dozens of things at once, the wisdom I want to impart, the specific points that will help my students to see the value of what I say and want to be good writers, the funny stories I want to tell to soften the often intense experience of teaching and learning. I stand there trying to be bright and clever and warm and knowledgeable and sometimes I forget the thing I wanted to say. I say “I’m having lethologica,” they laugh, I remember, and we go on.


6 Sep

Recently I heard on public radio a story in which the writer said something emanated into something else. I don’t remember the story. It might have been about the floods in Pakistan or about fighting in Afghanistan, or something else entirely. It sounds (and maybe is) heartless, but the weird misuse of the word made me stop listening to the story and start thinking about the word, about a writer’s responsibility to know the meanings of words he or she uses. I plan to add this to the rules for good writing I’ll be giving my students this fall: know the meaning of the words you use.

A word that means “to radiate from such and such” cannot be used to indicate an entering into.  Coming from, going into: these are not interchangeable ideas.

“Emanate” is a good and useful word. Things that emanate are intangible: odor, heat, aura, feeling, sound. The odor of earthy decay emanated from the cellar. Cries emanated from the dark playground. It has connotations of sadness and loss, of mystery and possible past violence, of the unseen and unseeable.

Words, I imagine, usually come from need. A culture needs a way to refer to an idea or a new thing. The people of the culture get an idea, say, of an odor not simply being located in a place but originating there and moving outward. The parts of the word come together from roots and prefixes and suffixes. The word enters the world.

I call myself an English geek. My students like this and laugh. Sometimes I go further and say I’m a fascist about the use of language, but neither is really true. I can go on a rant about the abuse of apostrophes (the rules are so few and simple, people! But more on that another time), but mainly I have a feeling for words, their shadings and textures. When I read something elegant, not necessarily elegant in the ideas it depicts but elegant in that it uses the perfect words to express, with simplicity, something often complex, the language stirs something in me. I feel it, sometimes even as a tingle, a real sensation. Sometimes it creates more of a longing, based partly on my envy of the writer and wish to convey the world like that (how I envy Don DeLillo whenever I reread White Noise).

When I first read Mishima’s story of hara-kiri, ritual suicide by disembowelment, I had a tense, physical reaction to it. I hadn’t set out to read this story, but was reading a collection of his stuff. I was ignorant and didn’t know that this was the story that described the act in exquisite detail.  It’s been more than 20 years, but I still remember the effect. It was then that I realized words’ actual power. Words have more than a benign, tangential presence in life. They do more than simply describe. They can make us feel as strongly as an act can. They can do violence to us, to our minds and bodies. They can caress. They can stir and confound us. They can haunt. They can pervade. They can evoke. They can bring tears. They are real.

I guess it’s because of my own feelings about words (here specifically words in English, because I am not proficient in other languages, but I imagine because there are writers in every language, that in every language words can have as powerful a physical presence) that public misuses bother me, and make me question the designation “writer.”

If we were perfect, or even perfectible, we would not be human. But a good rule for a writer to follow is this: know the meaning of the words you use.

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