Monster (Part V)

The word “monster” has a special place for me. I hope to post something each week of October exploring my experiences with this little bit of language.

If you haven’t yet, check out:

  • Monster (Part I) about why I believe monster stories are positive for people of all ages.
  • Monster (Part II) about befriending monsters, and learning empathy from them.
  • Monster (Part III) about the relationship between monsters and madness in our culture.
  • Monster (Part IV) about the differences between the monsters that haunted me as a child and teenager and the monsters that haunt me now.
  • And now, Monster (Part V) about Halloween costumes, and why it’s a good thing to pretend to be a monster once a year.

Halloween will arrive soon, and it’s on a Friday this year, which makes it especially exciting. I actually will be working the full day on Halloween and Samhain, so there’s no way I’ll be making it to any late night parties in between. But, I’ll still be wearing a costume, because thankfully, my workplace is fantastic and allows that sort of thing.

When I was a teenager, there first became the nudges from the culture that maybe, wasn’t I a little too old for this? I’m sure many people will remember that feeling. You get all dressed up and celebrate every Halloween for years, and then one year, it changes, and you feel a little embarrassed, or at least you feel that other people think you should be embarrassed.

But I don’t think costume is, in any way, embarrassing. I don’t think it denotes anything childish, and I think it’s actually really beneficial to most people emotionally and psychologically.

For me, Halloween is different from all other holidays in a very important way. Other holidays are all about celebrating feast, family, good moments, the special feeling of holiness, and love. All those things are positive, and I’m glad we have other holidays too. But Halloween is, in our culture, about life and death, it’s about the self, it’s about the power of imagination, the border between the real and the fantastic.

Halloween lets us celebrate who we really are, who we want to be. Who I am is not my body, it’s not my job, it’s not my family, my education, or even my hobbies or history. All those things are parts of me, important parts, but they are not all of me. I am also a mind, an imagination, I am a fluid entity that can change its presentation but is often not allowed. You are too.

When you were a child, you were allowed this. One day you could call yourself an astronaut, the next a dinosaur, the next a princess, the next a warrior demon, and at the end of the week you could still be a kid who loves cookies and the color orange.

But at some point, we collectively decide that adults never feel that way. We’re not anything outside our jobs, hobbies, or relationships. We identify as ‘teacher’ or ‘mechanic’ or ‘hiker’ or ‘wife’ or ‘father.’

I don’t really know about anyone else, but I’m still all sorts of other things. I’m not only every fictional character I’ve ever given life to, but I’m also most of the fictional characters I’ve ever read. I’m anyone I’ve ever empathized with. I’m a collective being made up of everyone who’s mind I’ve ever visited, real or imaginary. I might need to keep it a secret, but it’s there.

tumblr_mbwuzsDqqd1qizbpto1_1280So, I think that on that level, wearing a costume is a practice in being true to yourself. You can honor ideas, fears, and characters that you identify with. None of them are exactly who you are, but they are a part of you. They’ve shaped your person, your self, and donning costume is honoring that.

On another level, I also think that wearing costumes is good for anyone dealing with insecurity at all. Like my point about identifying with fictional characters, I may be projecting here. I certainly can’t generalize across seven billion people, but I do think that there’s probably a good percentage out there who have some issues of fear, insecurity, or general powerlessness in certain aspects of their lives.

One great thing about monsters is that they generally are not plagued by doubts or insecurities. They are strong and capable. Demons, ghosts, shape shifters– they are in control of whatever situation they’re in. They have power, knowledge, and confidence. They are beautiful and ugly and blend into crowds, and none of that matters, because they’re never embarrassed or plagued with feeling they don’t meet societal standards of beauty. They don’t worry that their loved ones might be disappointed in them, or that their love might be unrequited. They have better things to do, like haunting ancient tombs and soul harvesting.

“People fidget. They are compelled to look engaged in an activity, or purposeful. Vampires can just occupy space without feeling obliged to justify it.”

-Charlaine Harris, Living Dead in Dallas

Monsters, more than anything, have purpose, and they don’t really care whether anyone else knows, or what they think.

I’m not saying everyone should go out and pretend to be a monster (okay, I’m kind of saying that). I just think that feeling like you have purpose, feeling confident, intelligent, powerful, and in control– those are all really great feelings. Emotionally and psychologically, it is really refreshing and positive, especially to people who feel a bit powerless, directionless, or inadequate in the rest of their lives.

Halloween gives everyone the chance to become a monster for a little while, and engage with that part of themselves that is more than just their resume and small talk. Becoming a monster for a day let’s you tap into the well of yourself that has imagination, goals, and the power to reach them, no matter what other people say. Dressing like a monster for a day can get you back on track in your life. It’s a motivational tool.

So no matter how old you are, or how serious, I encourage trying it. Buy a costume prop, or throw together something you’d never normally wear in your closet (but maybe something you’ve secretly wanted to wear). Or just do some gore make up with cotton balls, old red lipstick, and Elmer’s glue.

You might be surprised to find yourself walking with a more confident stride, or realizing your wishes aren’t that hard to grant. You might find doubt slipping away like a shed skin, giving way to a sense of control and excitement you thought you lost. Tap into your imagination, explore fictional worlds, honor your secrets, and find that transparent border between the every day and the magical.

Grandiloquent Language

There is a point in many people’s lives when they are faced with a text that is packed full of long or unfamiliar words. This often happens when reading very old literature or philosophical texts, but it might be an academic essay or a particularly difficult poem. Whenever it happens, it has a similar effect: the reader feels like an idiot.

These texts leave us struggling with understanding words in a way we haven’t since we first learned language as a child. Word by word, the line slows down, the shapes of letters becoming more apparent on the page, and we become painfully aware of how much mental energy it actually takes to read. There are no context clues because the surrounding words are as incomprehensible as the word we first paused on. Soon, even the grammatical structure of the line seems strange and wrong. There is a foreignness to the moment, as if we are completely lost in a parallel world. A small, perhaps irrational, panic spikes in the back of the brain— what if I don’t understand my own language? What if I can’t comprehend or communicate? Am I isolated from other people? 

It sounds extreme, but I believe that these moments truly tap into a special sort of fear, at least the first time they happen. Humans are social beings. We need companionship and interaction with each other. Our form of communication that we call ‘language’ is so important to us as a species that when we feel that our ability to use it is threatened, even just for a moment, somewhere a fear whispers that it will cost us our communities and loved ones.

There are a few responses to this feeling, and each has the power to forever shape someone’s writing.

1. “The Dictionary”
Decide that not understanding the text is due to you not trying hard enough, and dedicate your life to learning new words.

This is a pretty good reaction, because it has the potential to really expand your vocabulary. These are the sorts of people who actually own a physical dictionary, buy word-of-the-day calendars, or set themselves up with a screensaver that displays them definitions. They subscribe to facebook groups that post pictures of obscure words (which may or may not be real) and try to work some of these into conversation occasionally.

Most of the time, those who fall into this category don’t end up writing extremely difficult texts, but do tend to include a greater amount of challenging words in their work along with plenty of context so readers can learn them too. Many authors fall into this category, and you can recognize them as the ones who seem to teach you new words all the time as you read their work.

(Small warning: Occasionally those with “The Dictionary” reaction will get caught on a new word and try to work it into everything, so there is a minor risk of them structuring ideas around their words instead of the other way around. This happened to me after learning the words “disgruntled” and “indubitably” as a child, and I’m sure I became unbearably obnoxious for a while.)

2. “The Thesaurus” Decide that not understanding the text is due to you being spectacularly stupid and incapable, and dedicate your life to attempting to hide this from everyone else who must just be inherently smarter and perfectly able to navigate thick tangles of obscure words. 

This reaction is what makes English teachers pull their hair out and frustrates Stephen King.

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

These people will write papers and then open up a thesaurus and substitute every word possible with a synonym that’s more difficult to read (and often doesn’t even share the same meaning or connotation). These are the ones that change every “use” to “utilize” and “praise” to “approbation.” They will make their sentences as long as possible and are known for packing papers with enough fluff to fill a nursery of toy bears.

For some, it becomes a game. They feel that they’re expected to shove these words into their writing, and so they play along, feeling that they have outsmarted the system. You can see this sort of reaction from Calvin.

Image                                              (Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson)

Their goal is no longer to communicate their ideas but to convince others that they have a command of grandiloquent language.

Unfortunately, it often convinces people of the opposite, because the goal of language is communication, and readers often can’t understand what in the world these writers are trying to say. This happens a lot in lower level essay writing courses, but I’m sure some go on writing this way forever. I imagine a dangerous loop could form where they feel stupid, use big words to feel smart, someone points out they used the words incorrectly, and then they feel stupid again.

“The Thesaurus” response is often caused by embarrassment or a secret lack of confidence, and is incredibly destructive. It’s one of those situations where fear leads directly to bad writing.

3. “The Hemingway”
Decide that not understanding the text is due to the writer of the text being incapable of expressing their ideas clearly and dedicating your life to proving that all of life’s complexities of thought, emotion, and experience can be expressed in plain vocabulary. 

This reaction leads to writing that is accessible to all sorts of readers. It doesn’t always mean that these writers don’t have a good vocabulary, but they usually believe that the simpler a sentence can be constructed, the better.

These people will look at essays with lines like, “The researcher discovered that female individuals have a greater tendency than their male counterparts to preface their statements with expressions which allow for additional possibilities or indicate a lack of commitment to their position” and correct it to “The researcher found that women are more likely to hedge their speech.”

They are likely to make the actual reading easy so that the reader’s focus can be on the complexity of the ideas explored. The reaction is named after the famous author because he is known for simple sentence structure and the use of accessible vocabulary. Plenty of other authors take this approach too, but Hemingway is famous for it.

The heart of this reaction is summed up in this exchange between Faulkner (who appears to have had a “Dictionary” reaction) and Hemingway:

“[Hemingway] had never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary”

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Not everyone necessarily falls into one of the three categories, of course. Life is too complicated for that. For example, I believe it’s possible for a “Thesaurus” reaction to become a “Dictionary” or “Hemingway” response with a little reassurance.

Some texts are just plain difficult, and it doesn’t make anyone stupid for not understanding them immediately. People can have all sorts of creative ideas without also having a large vocabulary.

I think one of the best strategies to help make this shift with students is to encourage developing and exploring their ideas, using whatever vocabulary they currently have.

To anyone who is faced with feelings of doubt about your vocabulary while writing, my advice is to work with the tools you have. You can go looking for words as something fun to do when you aren’t writing, but during the actual writing process, try to explain your thoughts as best you can using the words with which you’re already comfortable. Reading more in between writing (even books that are just fun to read and would never be described as “challenging”) will probably build and round out your vocabulary on their own without you ever needing to memorize words from the dictionary.

Blending of multiple reactions is possible, too. I think that I myself am often “The Hemingway” in philosophy and “The Dictionary” in practice. While I believe that all ideas can be expressed simply, I am, after all, writing this blog about how much I love learning about words.



“Though”— Perceptions of Powerlessness in Speaking and Writing

It’s getting towards the end of my last semester of college which means that I’m doing a whole lot of revision. I work on stories all year, but with portfolios on the horizon the process takes over most of my time.

One of the things I’ve tried to pay attention to as I revise are the unintentional repetitions that I leave in my paragraphs and stanzas. I’ve talked to some writers who have trouble over-using dashes or adverbs. I’ve talked to others who find all of their characters shrugging, glancing, and raising their eyebrows to punctuate every piece of dialogue.

In my own work, I tend to have a lot of “though”s.

I find it creeping into my sentences all the time, whether I’m writing or just speaking with people. It’s different than “although” or “however” which seem to transition to a new thought. “Though” just seems to be added on as a sentence softener in most cases.


“I hated that movie.”

“Yeah. I thought the fight scene was cool, though.”


I use it as a form of hedging. I can’t just assert a contradictory opinion, because I need to soften it first, to agree and then twist the agreement into what I mean. There has been a lot written about cultural gender norms and societal pressure on women to be agreeable and non-confrontational, so I’ll try not to just repeat it all here. With that said, I do think it’s important to acknowledge in myself as a woman and especially as a writer.

But it’s not just a woman thing. At its heart, I think using words to soften messages is just something that happens when people become used to not being listened to. I know that I start sprinkling my conversations with rapidly increasing instances of “you know?” when that’s the only way I feel like I can get my conversational partner to respond. When you’re met with silence at the end of all your ideas, you start to backtrack to make your ideas more agreeable just in case you might be able to invite some feedback.

This can happen to women, adolescents, employees, or anyone who feels like speaking their mind comes with a social risk that must be constantly mitigated. The consequence is that once all your ideas are softened, even if they are fantastic, they won’t come across with the power they once had. And when compared to the words of someone who is accustomed to being listened to, whose ideas are all expressed with fearless confidence, yours will sound weak and possibly inferior.

A lot of people have heard Taylor Mali’s “Totally, like whatever, you know?” which makes fun of all this hedging creeping into the language of a generation. It was one of the first spoken word poems I ever heard, and it is pretty funny. After learning a bit about the power dynamics at play with language use, it starts to become more troublesome to think about, though.

He’s hearing all these kids hedging all their phrases and filling conversations and essays with phrases lacking any substance, but the reason could be just a powerlessness felt in the relationship between student and teacher, or just as a part of that age group, or that role in society.

As someone who has assigned and graded papers and written many more, I’ve found the more structured the essay, the higher the fluff ratio will be for most students. If they aren’t trusted to have control over their writing, why take the risk to assert their true opinions? I remember my high school essays rarely required me to voice any opinion, and I was used to receiving As. It would have been riskier for me to have written something substantial in most cases.

Sometimes people say nothing to avoid the consequences of saying something.

If a young person has enough conversations like this:


“What are your views on this?”

“That’s awful. I never realized that was happening.”

“Seriously? How have you never heard about that?”

“I don’t know.”

“The issue is complex. You can’t just call it all awful.”



Their conversations will start to look more like this:


“What are your views on this?”

“I’m not sure… It seems bad though, but I mean, it seems really difficult to really address, you know?”


I think a lot of people have fear build up in them anytime they need to give an honest opinion on something. People are scared of not knowing things, of being criticized for their words, or of just being ignored entirely. The lack of positive feedback can be destructive to our use of language, and this becomes especially scary for writers.

I appreciate a point Stephen King made about confidence in his book On Writing. There is a lot to be said for trusting your thoughts and your words as a writer, but I truly think that King articulated it in one of the most concise ways I’ve seen with the sentence on page 127,

“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

This fear could result in an overuse of passive tense, abstractions, or just general vagueness, which are all issues young writers seem to have consistent trouble with. Even on a larger scale, though, this fear can make the necessary parts of writing seem impossibly difficult.

The first stage of writing is just being able to trust our thoughts and words enough to put them on the page. If a writer is too paralyzed their book will cease to be before it’s ever written. Writer’s Crippling Self Doubt can be caused through a bad case of low confidence.

Then the writer needs to revise, which requires at least having enough faith in one’s ideas to not break at the first hint of criticism and suggestion.  We need to know the changes we make will improve the work. Writers need courage to not delete the intimate or weird parts that are working well, even if showing people is terrifying.

After that there’s the issue of submitting things for publication. The overwhelming majority of submissions are rejected without any feedback, and writers need to have a level of callous on their ego before they can deal with it.

Reading work in front of a live audience can be difficult too, especially if you’re waiting for people to criticize your words. I know that when I do accidentally speed up reading, it’s because I’ve gotten to a section of a poem or story that I’m not sure my audience will react well to. I have an uncontrollable desire to just blur over the words by increasing my pace like a vocal eraser.


I believe one of the ways we can improve the conversations and the written works of young people is to encourage them with feedback whenever possible.

This doesn’t always need to be overwhelmingly positive feedback, but we should make an effort to say something. One of the biggest things that’s helped me improve as a writer is by going through the critiquing process and hearing both positive and negative feedback on my work.

Whether it’s critical or complimentary, giving feedback to a writer says:
I’m listening. Your ideas are valid and worth expressing. Here is my reaction to what you have to say.
And for the author, this can translate to:
This piece is worth working on. Keep writing. 

This doesn’t only take place in critiques. Discussion based classes are especially important because they demonstrate that every voice can contribute something to the conversation. Perhaps even more importantly, these classes encourage questions. I absolutely love the courses that come alive with questions and at some point someone says “Oh, that makes sense.” I love narratives that can emerge from a room of people trying to reach a conclusion.

It’s liberating to be allowed to say “I don’t know anything about that, could you tell me about it?” and have someone greet you with an enthusiastic discussion.

So I encourage people to recognize when hesitance, hedging, or fear finds its way into conversation. If we see this in the speech of others, we can make ourselves into better conversation partners and our rooms into safe places. If we can address what’s making us afraid of voicing our own words, we might be able to face our fears, and then speak our minds.

Isn’t that what confidence and courage is all about?