Tag Archives: humor

Wordsmithery and Feelings of Inadequacy


Why are writers so insecure? Today I’m going to tell you!

Many, many years ago, back before I even considered myself a writer, when I was just working on a play kind of as a lark, when I was just scribbling odd little nothings to myself in notebooks (which would become the blog posts and morning pages of today), I had an interaction with my sister. I couldn’t tell you what the substance of the interaction was, or what we were talking about, or what I said, exactly, or really any details of the interaction — except for one.

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And this detail, well, it stuck in my consciousness like the rusted-out bicycle that a tree grows around. I shaped myself around this comment, almost certainly to my detriment, in the intervening time. It ate me up from the inside, turning me into a neurotic mess of a writer, shaking my confidence the way earthquakes used to shake buildings before they started putting buildings on wheels.

Here’s the situation. I was home from college — or maybe just visiting my folks after college — or, hell, maybe it was before college, who can tell, that’s how bad my memory is but it’s not the point — and talking to my sister about something. Who knows what. And I said something.

What I said, I could not tell you today under pain of torture, except to say that it was an attempted witticism, a stab at something snarky, a foray into wordplay that went wrong. I felt it going wrong in the moment of saying it, the way a major league batter just feels the home run when it leaves his bat, or more precisely, the way he feels that he hasn’t just missed the pitch, he’s tipped it, at dangerous speed, probably past the protective netting, probably into the face of an unsuspecting fan, or worse, a kid, where it will knock out teeth or shatter cheekbones and necessitate a carefully-worded statement from the front office and probably an apology tour in the media. The words felt like that, coming out of my mouth. (Whatever they were.)

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(Crap.)

I knew, to put it bluntly, that I had botched my attempt at making good words, and botched it badly.

And my sister said to me, in that hurtful way that only your little sister who’s taken a lifetime of your crap can say, “wow, you’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”

You know that scene in every action movie where the building (or the car or the villain’s fortress or whatever) is exploding — just going entirely to pieces, irreparable damage, nothing but fire and pain and devastation filling the frame — and the hero (or heroine, this is the 21st century after all) is totally cool, walking away from it without a care? Or the end of Star Wars (episode IV or VI, reader’s choice) where the fateful shot is away, the heroes are flying off into the dark of deep space, and the villains keep flipping switches and coolly saying things like “fire on my mark” but they don’t know that they’re dead already?

This was like that.

“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you,” would stick in my brain and shape me more than I’d like, and certainly more than I’d care to admit, for years and years and years.

Every now and then, sometimes while writing, sometimes not, I’d hear it again, playing on a loop in my brain, and it would never fail to demoralize.

Wrote a sentence in my novel I’m not too sure about?

You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”

Used a totally inadequate word because I couldn’t think of the perfect one?

“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?

Said something totally idiotic in a everyday conversation?

“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”

Just sitting there watching TV, not even thinking about writing at that particular moment?

“YOU’RE A REAL WORDSMITH, AREN’T YOU?”

Everything I write, I have to contend with that voice in my head: it’s good, sure, but is it wordsmith good? So I second-guess myself to death. Is this creative enough? Is it clever enough? Smart enough? Or could any schlub with a pencil and half a brain come up with something better?

Then, once second-guessed, it’s only natural to third-guess the problem. I could make it better by throwing in MORE words. Better words. ALL THE WORDS. Or maybe get rid of the sentence entirely — the words can’t be dumb if there are NO WORDS AT ALL.

This thinking leads, like a boulder down a mountain path, to overthinking, until the boulder turns into a self-doubt and self-loathing black hole, population: me and everything I have ever written.

Absolute poison.

And while I internalized that comment, like an ingrown toenail, or like the point of that Morghul blade working its way inexorably toward Frodo’s heart, my sister got to walk away and never think about it again for the rest of her life. Probably the most she ever thought about it was in the very next second after she said it, to say to herself “good burn,” and then forget about it forever.

I tell you all this not to shame her, but to shame myself. To purge the poison by first acknowledging the fact that I’ve been poisoned. The fault in this tale is not hers for saying the thing, but mine for taking the thing and wrapping it in silk and tucking it away in the secret place in my mind to take out and fetishize and fixate upon.

It’s hard — nigh impossible, I’d almost say — not to do this. When we identify so closely with what we create (as authors and artists of all stripes must, by necessity), then an assault on that thing becomes an assault on us, in much the same way that, oh, I don’t know, a high-profile sports star saying disparaging things about certain people in positions of power makes people that like the disparaged person come to hate said high-profile sports star, even though they have no personal stake in what was said at all.

AHEM AHEM I DIGRESS.

Our work is a part of ourselves, and that’s not a bad thing — but we also have to be able to see our work as not a part of ourselves. To see that the words we write aren’t themselves who we are, but instead just a reflection of who we are in the moment. And, most importantly, those reflections can always be improved and changed — and we don’t have to beat ourselves up over them.

Go forth and wordsmith.

Imperfectly.

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Don’t Forget to Wash Up


This is the kind of thing that you find all over your previously perfectly boring, perfectly un-terrifying house when you become a parent.

Kids don’t give a hot handful how a toy is meant to be played with. They’re going to play with it in the way that makes the most sense to them at the time, dammit, and if that means dumping six 300-piece puzzles out on the floor and mixing the pieces together so that those puzzles will never be completed in this life or the next, that’s what they’re going to do. If it means running Hot Wheels tracks all over the house and the couch and the cat sleeping on the couch, that’s what they’re bloody well going to do. And if it means decapitating their action figures and not so much tossing but posing the disembodied heads in the sink drains so that it looks like little blue gremlins are slithering out of the unseen depths to haunt my nightmares, then that’s what they’re absolutely going to do, thank you very much.

Never mind that I’m going to stumble on this disturbing tableau first thing in the morning. My sleep-addled brain is going to have to contend with a miniature demon head peeking out of the drain. (It won’t contend well. I’ll first have a lizard-brain fight-or-flight jump accompanied by a quite unmanly yelp, followed by some hyperventilating and finishing off by jumping at shadows for the rest of the day.) Never mind that the petit horror is waiting for me in a safe space within a safe space to thoroughly throw off my sense of routine. (Nobody expects to get their brains scared out first thing in the morning in the bathroom, for goodness’s sake … but if it is going to happen in the bathroom, I expect the terror to come from the shower, as would any red-blooded horror movie fan, so the sink is just out of bounds. I’d at least be gratified if the kids had set a trap for me in the shower.) No, the scare will come, not from the last place I’d expect, but from a place that it wouldn’t even occur to me to ever consider that it might come from.

I’ll table, for now, the question of whether leaving a disembodied head in a sink means my kid is a serial killer in the making, and instead focus my mental efforts on checking the toaster for silly string and my kids’ artwork for surreal nightmare imagery culled from my dreams.


Signs, Signs Everywhere


Who doesn’t love a good terrible sign?

By terrible, of course, I mean a sign that attempts to communicate a certain message but in practice communicates an entirely different or even antithetical message. The internet is full of them, and I’ll leave it to your own ingenuity to find the ones that tickle your fancy, but there’s nothing quite like coming across one in the wild.

And that’s what I did this week!

We took the sprouts on an overnight trip to Chattanooga for a visit to the aquarium and the discovery museum (weather was predicted to be too nasty for outdoor activities and … it wasn’t, but we had already arranged for indoor stuff so that’s life I guess). It was a great time! Not that I’m suddenly turning travel agent or anything, but I can safely say (and I take no pleasure in this) that these facilities have way more to offer the tourist than the comparable facilities in Atlanta.

More to the point, I also came across some delightfully confusing signage.

Exhibit A:

I’ve seen this one before, and maybe even commented on it here. (Which is testament both to how long I’ve had this site and how old I’m getting — there’s a vague sense that this thing may have happened, but the memory is so dim and far away it might as well be somebody else’s.) Anyway — this is a sign posted outside a bathroom advertising that there’s a changing table inside, but for all my efforts I can’t see it as anything other than a dude putting a baby on a grill.

“Keep the baby over the center of the coals,” it seems to say. “Check the heat of the grill often and turn the baby to ensure even cooking.”

Then, this:

This one, I … oi. It’s two days later and I’m still breaking my brain trying to properly understand it. First of all, it’s guilty of that perverse advertising oddity where the animal about to be eaten is serenely happy about the entire arrangement. Much like the cow at Milliways in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, our finny little friend here just can’t wait to be filleted. Then there’s the motto, which — I mean, isn’t that a law enforcement slogan? That being said, it’s a lovely double entendre. “We’re going to serve you some fish, but we’re also going to protect them.”

You know. So you can eat them. Happy fish!

A representative from the aquarium actually tweeted me back when I expressed this sentiment, which surprised and impressed me:

So I guess my attempt at twitter humor came up a bit short. On the subject, I won’t at all get into where my head went when I saw that the handle of the Tennessee Aquarium is @TNAquarium. Nope, won’t go there at all, and if your mind didn’t go there with me, then it’s a testament to your character.

Last but not least, there was also this exhibit plaque:

I don’t know what Julie did, but clearly the Aquarium is not having any of it.


The Trooth Fairy


I’m a bad parent, I realize, as I slow-pedal up to the front of the house. It’s 5:30 AM, I’m just getting back from my run, and I can see through the blinds on my son’s window that he’s awake and bouncing around in his bed. (Literally. He’s six. Settle down.)

My first thought is, “why is he up so early?” Which, as soon as it’s asked, is answered by the second thought: “because he’s checking for his tooth fairy money.” Which I forgot to place under his pillow last night.

Because I’m a bad parent.

I don’t have a great excuse, and I’m no fan of excuses anyway. It just wasn’t a priority. So somewhere between Masterchef (which I watch too much and hate every minute of) and a couple dozen pre-sleep pages of How I Killed Pluto (and Why It Had It Coming), it slipped through the cracks in the ol’ memory box. Which is kind of terrible, because this tooth has been falling out for about two weeks. First, it was just loose. Then it was really loose. And for the past week or so, it’s literally been hanging on by a thread. (I know, it makes me queasy just to think about it, much less to write about.) Seriously, it could spin in its socket like a stripped-out screw in drywall. (My further apologies.) Its loss is an event, awaited with the same kind of impatience that accompanies the weeks leading up to college football starting up.

Yesterday, it finally fell out.

Sprout tried to pull a fast one on my wife and I.  He told me, when he got home, that he “lost it”, and when I asked him what that meant, he said it was either on the road somewhere (my first clue — he’s such a little sack of nerves that he won’t go anywhere near the road out of somebody’s supervision) or that he swallowed it. My wife gave me her unimpressed face and said, “oh, you mean it’s not in the bag your teacher told me about?” And then he went running to his room to get it.

He had come straight in the door and put his newly unmoored tooth directly under his pillow.

I remember reading a story recently about somebody whose kid ran a science experiment on this whole “tooth fairy” business. Said kid lost a tooth — one of the back ones, one that’s not readily within notice (whereas my poor kid basically has a bay window in the front of his mouth now thanks to losing both of his front-top chompers). Said kid suspected that the tooth fairy had something to do with her parents, so without telling her parents, she hid the tooth under her pillow.

Three mornings later, short of cash and still in possession of a dried-out tooth, she presented her findings to her parents, I imagine buttoning her Ted Talk with a petulant “this is all bullshit, isn’t it?”

So, I thought of that, and my heart leapt for a second. Maybe my son was trying to test the existence of the tooth fairy. Maybe he’s a secret scientific genius. Maybe this is the beginning of his skeptical awakening.

But no, I’ve watched enough TV to know better. Follow the money. He was trying to get paid, preferably as soon as possible so that he could get some dollar-store candy, thank you very much.

But, as I said — here I am the next morning, and I’ve forgotten.

And he’s already up. And the only reason he’d be up early on a school day is because he’s excited about something, and that something is the fat stack of cash he’s anticipating for his missing tooth. So he’s seen that his tooth is still there, still in its wrinkled plastic baggy, dried blood flaking of the craggy underside. His little heart will be broken. A little bit of magic will have gone out of the world.

And because I’m an evergreen Scrooge, my heart brightens a little bit at that thought. Well, this is as good an opportunity as any to tell him the whole thing is a sham, the miser in my head says. He was gonna learn sooner or later, so why not now? First, kick this tooth fairy business out the front door — with great prejudice, I might add. Next on the hit list: Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. It’s gonna be a good year.

These thoughts I share with my wife as I’m climbing into the shower. “Might as well tell him,” I say. “We already blew it, so we ought to just send the hard lesson now.” She gives me the unimpressed look, so I stop telling her the things I’m thinking out loud and resolve to have The Talk with my kid once I’m clean.

But I won’t get the chance, as you might have guessed when she was giving me the unimpressed look. Sure enough, I’m mid towel-off when my son bursts in the door with a fistful of dollars. (That’s the funny thing about having young kids. They don’t care about bathroom doors. They’ll come right in. And then stare at you. Nothing weird about that.)

Cue the following exchange:

Sprout: “DADDY LOOK.”

Me: “Oh, you got some money, huh?”

Sprout: “YEAH. I woke up and the tooth fairy forgot to pick up my tooth, but then I went to the bathroom and when I came back, SHE GOT IT.”

Me: “Oh, wow. That’s awesome, buddy.”

Sprout: “Yeah. And daddy, guess what?”

(I often wonder if he actually thinks my name is “daddy guess what”.)

Me: “What?”

Sprout: “She gave me EXTRA dollars this time. LOOK.”

Me: “Super cool.” I look past him to my wife, who leans on the door frame, giving me the unimpressed look again. “I guess she felt bad about not getting it on time, huh?”

Sprout: “Yeah, I guess so. Can I buy some CANDY PLEASE?”

So, as usual, my wife saves the day. Because the other thing I forgot while planning the shattering of my son’s illusions? He’s six, and he’s happy to believe just about anything when plied with toys and candy. The tooth fairy doesn’t fail to exist just because she didn’t show up at the appointed time. She was just running late this morning.

I guess I’ll have to break the tooth to him some other time.

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The truth, I mean.

(I’m so, so sorry.)


Bend One Over For Me


My wife is a librarian.

She’s a lot smarter than I am, as I may have mentioned before. Which probably explains why she had a career, first in the news (where she wrote the words you’d see on your trusted news sites — and sometimes coming out of the anchors’ mouths), and second in the school system, facilitating students’ access to the carefully chosen words of thousands of authors and information sources.

She’s an expert, is what I’m trying to say, on the written word. And I’m, you know, working on that. Needless to say, our house is full (yeah, probably overly full) of books. We keep books everywhere: the bedside table, the downstairs library, the shelf in the living room, the cubby in the kitchen, our children’s bedrooms, our personal spaces at work, our bags going to and from work. I even keep books in my car, and I’ve been known to sneak a page in at that one reeeally long traffic light. We give books as gifts to each other and to others. We know books, we love books.

But one thing you’ll find in my books that you won’t find in hers? Dog-eared pages.

 

See, I used to re-read books that I enjoyed. I still do that occasionally, but I just don’t have the disposable time that I used to have. There are still, though, those passages in books of all stripes that just hit me — a nasty literary hook to the solar plexus, a wicked narrative cross to the temple — that I know I will want to experience again. I may not have time to go cover-to-cover again, but when I’m jonesing, I can pick up a tome I’ve traveled before and browse the greatest hits.

But how do I find them again?

I have to mark them.

I usually try to keep a pencil quick-to-hand, but especially at home, that isn’t always the case. When I’m neck-deep in a gripping read, the last thing I want to do is put the book down and cross the room. I’m not doing that. Plus, even if I do have a pencil handy, what are the odds I’m going to see my pencil mark as I flip through the pages? Not great. Sure, there are highlighters for such quandaries, but highlighting reminds me too much of school, and this is leisure, not work. So highlighting is out, for me. (Unless we’re talking e-books. Which we’re not. We have some standards around here. [Just kidding. E-books are great. I have lots of them. But you and I both know that there’s nothing like the real thing.])

No, if you really want to find that knockout passage again, you need to mark the whole page so that you can open right to it.

Again, there are methods for such things. Some people, I understand, like post-it notes or little scraps of paper. To that I say, who has the time? If I’m not going to interrupt my read to get a pencil, I’m darn sure not going to go downstairs to the office to get a post-it to stick between the pages. I’m not going to sit here and rip up a piece of paper to make a dozen tiny bookmarks. (Also, they fall out!) Nonsense.

No, what I’m going to do, when I find that lexical 10-point-dive, is I’m going to do what any lazy (read: normal) person would do. I’m going to read it, realize I’ve just had my world rocked, read it again, then reach up to the top of the page and bend that corner over. Bang. Done. I didn’t have to get up, I don’t have to fiddle with other implements, and I’ve created an effortless-to-find mark in the book that will last, at the very least, until I open the book again.

It probably goes without saying (though I am happy to say it anyway) that I have a chosen handful of books so dog-eared that the unbent pages are rarer than their bent brethren. My copy of the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide comes to mind. As does my (and I shake my head a little at this) little pink-covered edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I may not have the time to read them again these days (for the fourth, or the fifth, or the forty-fifth time), but if I need a fix I can crack them open and browse through some of the passages that made me love them.

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Assuming I can find the passage I was looking for. Heck, I’ll find SOMETHING good on one of those pages.

If not for dog-ears, where would I be? Lost, that’s where.

Which, for my personal collection of Books That I Own, is fine.

But I’ve rediscovered the library, lately. And, oooooooooh, does my wife have a problem with me putting a dog-ear in a library book.

Because if books are sacred (and inasmuch as I hold that nothing is sacred, books may be the closest thing to it), then library books are doubly so. They belong not to one, but to all. They are a shared resource, a tool for the entire community. Bending the pages is damaging them, she says, as surely as is scribbling in the margins, bending the cover back, or dropping them in a puddle. I’m leaving the book in a less-than state for the next reader when I damage it.

And, as far as damage goes? Yes, I totally agree. Library books, by dint of their communal nature, are sacred and should be taken extra care with. (Don’t end a sentence with a preposition, they said. Avoid passive voice, they said. Rules are for breaking.)

But I hold that dog-earing, and even the occasional note in the margins (I wouldn’t write in the margins personally, but I don’t mind finding writing in the margins), is the antithesis of damage. It’s enrichment.

In fact, if I find that a book I’ve just checked out is dog-eared up already? Ooh boy, I know I’m in for a treat. A dog-ear in a book I haven’t read yet is a flashing neon sign, the finger of an unseen deity saying “the stuff you want in this book? It’s right here.” If it’s a nonfiction book, I’m opening right to that page. In fiction, I note that page the way you note the dessert table on your way into a buffet. Can’t wait to get THERE. (Seems like I’m having a food motif of late around here. Couldn’t possibly be the new diet.)

So, naturally, I feel that when I dog-ear the pages of an enjoyable book, I’m returning the favor. Paying it forward. Marking off the trail for the prospective readers yet to come. And if it does benefit the next reader, that’s awesome. But the truth is, I would do it anyway. Dog-earing a book is one of those rare acts which is both selfish and serves the community. I do it for myself, but it might benefit somebody else, too, and I think that’s awesome.

Heck, Kindle — or maybe it’s Google Books, or maybe both — will already identify for you the passages that other readers often highlight in the books you read. Isn’t this basically the same thing?

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The library-owned copy of “10% Happier” I’m currently working through. Sorry not sorry!

Still, my wife scowls at me when she catches me at it. “How can you do that to a library book?” she demands.

How can you not, I don’t dare say in return.

Except that, uh, the jig will be up when she reads this.

So … yeah.

Am I wrong for this? Or is this not a service we owe to one another?


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