Guest Post, Faye Rapoport DesPres: The Lost Words

I haven’t written a “creative” word in a month. That might be an odd way to start a blog post about writing, but it’s the truth—and wherever there is truth, there is a puzzle for a writer to examine.

I can point to several reasons why I haven’t been writing, of course. Aren’t there always reasons? First, I just returned from a two-week trip to Alaska, so I was away for two weeks of the month in question. Second, every moment of the two weeks before the trip felt busy with preparations and tinged with anxiety—after all, my husband and I would be traveling on four flights, a train, a bus, two small boats, and a medium-sized cruise ship.

A third reason goes like this: feeling relieved at the opportunity to disconnect from the Internet, I left behind my laptop, which would have been difficult to tote on and off planes and from one place to another on the ground or at sea. I did pack a small, handmade notebook from a Tanzanian craft shop that employs people who live with physical challenges. I thought the notebook’s history would motivate me to write, but its pages remained blank throughout the trip.

All of these reasons sound good when I write them down, but the truth is I can’t explain the lack of writing. I have never before traveled to such an inspiring place without writing a single word while I was there. Each day I thought about writing (and I did dictate journal entries into my iPhone), but day after day I avoided that little notebook and wondered, in the back of my mind, why I was doing it.

Seal on Rock

Photo: Faye Rapoport DesPres

What I was doing was taking photographs. My camera, I’d always known, was coming with me to Alaska regardless of how awkward it would be to carry it. From the moment our plane landed in an Anchorage flooded with daylight at 11 o’clock at night, I snapped photo after photo after photo. I captured images of snow-covered mountains, of rivers carrying glacial silt through scenic valleys, of seagulls chasing the spouts of humpback whales, and of seals resting on ice caps recently calved from retreating glaciers. I took photos of a wolf tailing a grizzly bear across a mountainside, of a herd of caribou on a hilltop, of 20,310-foot-tall Denali on a rare sunny day. And the bald eagles! I had only seen four in the wild before this trip, but in Alaska, the sky and the trees and even the rooftops seemed filled with them, and I couldn’t stop clicking at their magnificence.

A number of writers I admire also take photographs. As I captured image after image in Alaska, I wondered about this impulse. Why was I obsessed with my camera, while the little notebook languished, unopened, in my suitcase?

Eagle with Wings Open

Photo: Faye Rapoport DesPres

Somewhere between Anchorage and Denali and Seward and Skagway and Hoonah and Ketchikan, it occurred to me that my goal with a camera is pretty much the same as my goal with a pen. I’m trying to capture the world around me in all its beauty, its glory, its sadness, and its grit so that I can save and relive the moments, and then share them with others. Like any writer or photographer or artist in any media, I can’t recreate the world as it actually exists. I can only interpret it through the filter that is—for better or worse—me. A bald eagle exists in all its magnificence in and of itself. All I can do is try to capture its essence and the wonder I feel when I see it. Then I can show it to others with an unspoken question: “Do you see what I see?” I want someone else to see it, too, so I can share the experience—and also so I’m not alone in that wonder.

With creative writing (whether it’s fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or dramatic writing) the process, I think, is much the same. The writer observes something or feels something or experiences an event, and then captures, frames, interprets, recreates, or re-imagines it based on a personal understanding and sensibility. Through this process, the story is infused with the meaning the writer attaches to it. Finding the right sharpness or clarity or beauty in the delivery is what requires click after click after click of the pen or keyboard.

Of course, there is one central difference between photography and writing. Photographs are visual images made up of (or at least based on) shapes and colors and light that exist outside the photographer, out there in the world at the moment when the shutter is snapped. How the photographer perceives those images and frames and interprets them with a camera is, of course, the art. Written texts, on the other hand, are born of observations of the outside world that become stories when they merge with the ideas, memories, and imagination in the mind of the writer. The texts won’t exist unless the writer makes use of that complicated, beautiful, difficult, and (for me) often dreaded tool: words.

Words. There are so many words! And writers have to choose just the right ones every time! And the choice of which words to use makes all the difference.

South Sawyer Glacier

Photo: Faye Rapoport DesPres

Sometimes, for me, the words just don’t come. While I was in the great, vast, wild state of Alaska, they eluded me completely. The wilderness was so stunning that words failed me. One definition of the word “stunning,” by the way, is to be “able or likely to make a person senseless or confused.” That is what Alaska did to me. It stunned me. It left me senseless and confused…wordless. But, I have to say, happily, ecstatically so.

Now I am home. Now, as a writer, my job is to make sense of what struck me senseless. The weeks, months, and maybe even years of translation and interpretation through the imperfect filter that is me must begin.

But why? Why not leave Alaska to be remembered through the hundreds of photographs I came home with, the eagles and the glaciers, the mountains and the waterfalls, the seals and the wolf and the whales? I certainly love the photos, and if I were a better photographer, photos would rightfully be enough.

But for better or worse, I’m a writer. And ever since I was a little girl, all I wanted was to find the right words.

Guest Post, Gregory J. Wolos: One Seuss, Two Seuss—Old Seuss, New(er) Seuss

Gregory J. WolosI came across the word “curmudgeon” the other day and was struck by what a fine alternative it is to “grouch” or “sourpuss.” Wondering where such a word came from, I searched out its etymology in my Oxford English Dictionary. I discovered that, though “curmudgeon” has been in use since the sixteenth century, even the experts can’t trace its derivation. As I sat pondering the mystery of “curmudgeon,” the word’s foggy origin and unique sound reminded me of one of my favorite children’s books, one I used to read long ago to my now-adult children— On Beyond Zebra, by Dr. Seuss. I’ve got my half-century old copy in front of me now, and memories waft from its pages as I turn them.

The ostensible subject of On Beyond Zebra is language—the alphabet, specifically. The story’s narrator explains to his “very young friend who is learning to spell” that the standard alphabet is woefully insufficient: there are marvelous creatures all over the world with bizarre names that require equally bizarre letters. The narrator conjures up these letters and creatures, one after the other, such as YUZZ for Yuzz-a-ma-Tuzz and SNEE for Sneedle (“a terrible kind of ferocious mos-keedle”). The book’s theme, nearly shouted at the reader in rhyme and illustration, is “Be creative!”

On Beyond Zebra is one of several books written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss between 1946 and 1956 that are hymns to the imagination. The pages of On Beyond Zebra, If I Ran the Zoo, If I Ran the Circus, and McElligott’s Pool burst with invention. Dr. Seuss’s pictures and rollicking anapestic tetrameter lead the reader to such thrilling oddities as fish with time-telling faces and tiny creatures that juggle punctuation marks. We find ourselves in such imagination-stretching locales as “Fuzz-a-ma-wuzza-ma-dill” and “the far western part of south-east North Dakota.” These books practice their central ideal: if the reader looks around him or herself with fresh and unbiased eyes, there are amazing things to be seen. Not only do these early works encourage readers to “think outside the box,” they model the process. The narrator of McElligott’s Pool, for example, speculates: “If I wait long enough, if I’m patient and cool,/ Who knows what I’ll catch in McElligott’s Pool?” Then he answers his own question by picturing page after page of spectacular fish eager to take his bait. We readers join him as he populates and names the creatures of his universe— the implication being that we share his god-like power to create.

It seems to me important not to confuse Seuss’s books in praise of creativity with such overtly moralizing works as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Horton Hatches an Egg. Because books like Grinch or the Horton stories focus on a particular virtue, such as unselfishness or faithfulness, their outcomes are predictable and reductive. Their characters and settings may seem original, but they serve conventional conclusions: good wins; evil, if it isn’t purged, suffers. All of which is fine, if you like sermons.  But what I am suggesting is that the books I’ve grouped with On Beyond Zebra portray a more complex, interesting, and truthful world.

The Zebra books are full of joyous wonder—but they also tell of misery and despair. In On Beyond Zebra the reader experiences creatures like the Quandary, who “worries, far into the night . . . Is his top side his bottom? Or bottom side top?” And there are Thnadners: “and oh, are they sad oh!/ The big one, you see, has the smaller one’s shadow.” Jogg-oons spend their lives “doodling” around “far desert dunes . . . crooning very sad tunes.” These creatures illustrate a fact about the world: sadness is as real as happiness. “Existential angst?” Seuss seems to ask the reader. “Here it is: look and learn.” Horton the elephant won’t always be there to bail you out.

Which brings me to Oh, the Places You’ll Go, Dr. Seuss’s last book. I’m afraid that, measured against his best earlier work, Seuss’s final story must be viewed as a dismal failure. I can hear your outraged voices: “What? The wonderful book I received (or gave) just this year as a graduation present a ‘dismal failure’? Why, the valedictorian quoted it in her commencement address—in fact, the speech itself was delivered in rhyme. It was so creative! And inspiring! What are you—some kind of curmudgeon?”

Call me what you will. But I condemn Oh the Places You’ll Go for the very same reasons that your valedictorian’s principal approved the speech that used it: it’s safe; it’s an agglomeration of platitudes; its messages are as generic as those of a Nike slogan or a Hallmark card. Where are the “Places” in Oh the Places You’ll Go? There are none. The book is nothing more than a series of substance-less slaps on the back, like “Kid, you’ll move mountains!” or “Life’s a great balancing act!” Clichés are fine for T-shirts, coffee mugs, and politicians, but once we’ve heard them, they dissolve like sugar stirred into a glass of water. By contrast, the masterfully imaginative works of the Zebra group take us everywhere: they show, rather than tell. In fact, they don’t just show, they show how.

I’d rather gift my graduates with On Beyond Zebra. Dr. Seuss left the final page of this book blank, except for one last fantastical letter with a question printed under it: What do you think we should call this one, anyhow? The reader has been invited to create both the name of the letter and the whatever-it-is the letter will help spell. Let’s say I call the letter CURM—needed to begin Curmudgeon, of course (the word even the Oxford English Dictionary can’t explain). The picture I draw is a cartoon version of me!  I’m pointing at you, and I seem to be accusing you of something—but what is it? And what are you going to do about it?

Guest Blog Post, Elane Johnson: For the LOVE of the Language

Elane with FrappuccinoAs many writers know, we have to get a “real job” in order to keep those Strawberries & Crème Frappuccinos ® coming because those things ain’t cheap, and my thighs aren’t going to get fatter all by themselves. Wait a minute. That’s clearly not true. The longer I sit here doing jack, the more thunderous my thighs become. But I digress.

 

A real job. That’s where I was. There are many careers for which a writer would be a good fit, but just because we would be good at something doesn’t mean we should do it. Sure. I’d be the most celebrated WalMart manager south of Canada, but then I’d have to come home and self-flagellate at night to atone for the murder of my brain cells. So most writers without a multi-volume book deal about zombies coming of age during the apocalypse do that thing we do, which is teach.

 

I’ve many, many years of teaching under my tight belt, and there have been thrills and laughter and heart-warmth and breakthroughs and achievements and success and enormous paychecks that compensated me well for the services I’ve provided. Except for that last part. That’s bullshit. Anyone who teaches knows. Teachers—even those with an M.F.A. in creative writing—get paid squat to impart our wordsmith’s knowledge to hordes of students who may or may not capitalize the personal pronoun I. Yet we continue because A) We love our language and its beauty. B) We care about the success of our students. And C) Those Frappuccinos ain’t going to buy themselves.

 

The English language—while it is the most difficult of all the languages in the world to learn because of its plethora of rules and exceptions and integration of foreign words—thrills me with its lyrical malleability. My father and I played games with grammar all my young life so that I came to appreciate the ways in which a writer may play with the poetry of English. And my own children have blossomed in the linguistic soil their grandfather tilled. My younger daughter delights in learning and sharing new words. She recently dropped this one on me: Apricity. The word sounds lovely, and its meaning slays me. It is a perfect example of how the English language proffers just the right word for any instance. In this case, “the warmth of the sun in winter.” Isn’t that just breathtaking?

 

I rushed to the window that morning—the first of which in weeks the sun had finally burned through the snow-thick clouds—to luxuriate in the apricity.

 

Yes, yes. I know it’s an obsolete word and that we’ve moved on to such accepted terms as homie and vajazzle, for God’s sake, but still. Our language is a living entity, forever evolving (or devolving, it appears). But thank goodness our language throws back some of the “new” words that end up in its net, such as the words some of my students create because they learn primarily through hearing instead of reading. The most common, of course, is should of. Because those two words sound just like should’ve, it’s an oft-made error that makes me want to poke out my eyes with dull sticks. In the last week of grading papers, I’ve come across mind bottling and world wind romance. Lord, help me, but what the hell?

 

Aberrations like these are an affront to writers-who-must-be-teachers-in-order-to-eat everywhere! We poor, struggling souls toil like cats in a sandbox in our attempts to improve the writing skills of our charges. But c’mon! There is no excuse for college students NOT to capitalize I or to think that pit bulls have a “killer instant in them” or that “taking something for granite” means anything! The least that our students can do is to read, read, read excellent models of our language so that they can experience and emulate the right way to write (not the “rite way to wright”). And bringing us a Strawberries and Crème Frappuccino once in a while couldn’t hurt either.

Guest Blog Post, Anthony Varallo: SPACE, DOUBLE SPACE

Anthony E VaralloHow many spaces after a period, one or two?  Space or double space?  If you’re like me, old enough to remember typing your first research papers on your parents’ IBM Selectric, —ancient, even then, but thrilling nonetheless, the way the letters jumped from a center ball that spun and rotated across the page—then you probably prefer two spaces, even though, as you are becoming increasingly aware, typeset pages, like the ones you see in nearly every print publication of every kind, from the smallest circulation literary magazine to The New York Times, use a single space.  Only.  There is, as you must reluctantly admit, no such thing as double-spacing in print publication.  A single space presides after every period.  A space no different than the one after a comma or semi-colon.  Yes, you know this; still, you use two spaces after each period.  Why?

Because you took a typing class in seventh grade, for starters.  The class met in a room fitted out with twenty manual typewriters resting atop twenty desks, the typewriters wearing a vinyl cover that could only be removed upon the instructor’s permission and, at the end of each session, carefully replaced, requiring you to position the typewriter’s carriage just so.  The instructor was old, even by seventh grade teacher standards, and his voice shook as he called out the sentences you were to type, including—and this seems important—the spaces after each punctuation mark.  Comma, space.  Period, double space.  The sound of twenty space bars double-spacing: a basketball dribbled twice.  Failure to double space, a red instructor’s mark, a lower grade.

Because, in college, you upgraded to a portable word processor, heavy as a packed suitcase, but light enough to carry to the dorm lounge whenever your roommate had a visitor.  The word processor stored your papers—documents, you began calling them, without quite realizing it—on disks, enabling you to save your work for later, the words on the page and yet not on the page, either, since you hadn’t printed them out yet, a new phrase to put alongside documents.  Still, you wrote those words as if they would be printed out, because that’s what words aspired to, you began to realize, to be part of sentences to be printed out, and those sentences needed a punctuation mark at the end with two spaces after to give them their proper due.  A pause.  Breathing room.  Authority.

Because, right after you traded in your portable word processor—that old thing!—for your first personal computer, you began writing short stories, and sentences suddenly seemed something larger than words on a page; they became individual brushstrokes on a canvas framed by top, bottom, right and left margins.  Something to take time on, to linger upon, even for hours, as you did, drinking coffee late into the night.  A sentence was a slow-born thing, you began to understand, and to finish one was a kind of honor, one that required a double space, as if to say, There, done, yes, made it, now it is so.  The double space sent the cursor more forcefully into the blank page, to better accompany your mind, which suddenly had no idea how it had ever written a good sentence in the first place.  For each sentence completed only sent you into the next sentence to be completed, where all the old challenges cropped up again—word choice, tone, grammar, syntax, style, clarity, coherence, precision—the completed sentence offering no clues where the next was to follow.  Every sentence is a solo act.  A truth the double space only wished you to know better.  A truth a single space would rather you never learn.

Because you have tried using a single space, even though you won’t admit it.  A phase that only lasted a few months or so, right around the time you started noticing that your students, born in the era when you traded the word processor for the PC, used a single space after periods.  So you tried, for the sake of keeping up, for the sake of growing and changing, for the sake of not suffering potential embarrassment, always important to you.  You single-spaced after each period.  A feeling like walking on one foot.  Like looking left, right, but not left again.  Like parking bumper to bumper in a crowded lot.  You couldn’t get the hang of it, so back to double-spacing you went, and where you have stayed.  You can’t help it: you like the world a little bit better with double-spacing in it.

But what to do now?  You have two children, and they both use computers, both like writing stories and jokes; sometimes even a screenplay, which they film with their iPods.  Sometimes they need your help spelling certain words, help you are happy to give.  You stand beside them as they type the word and reach the end of the sentence.  You hold your breath after they type the period.  The cursor blinks.  Your children hesitate, about to ask another question.  Space or double space?