Just World

From the time we’re born, we love hearing stories. In the world of fiction, authors have the ability to arrange events and character arcs so that everything generally works together thematically and makes sense in terms of some greater meaning. Things have reason for happening, and usually things will end up in a way that seems satisfying, even if there is some tragedy.

We start with fairytales, which are so blatant about this type of world building that they usually not only have events and characters that are molded by themes, but also by morals. There are lessons that emerge, and a sense of justice applied to all events.

A good example of this is the story of the little red hen. The hen plants seeds, takes care of them, cuts the wheat when it grows, takes it to the mill, brings back flour, makes the dough, and bakes the bread. Through every step, she asks all her friends for help, but the dog, cat, and duck (described with clear negative adjectives like lazy, sleepy, and noisy) refuse to help, letting her do the work all herself. At the end, when there is delicious, warm bread, everyone asks to ‘help’ eat some, and the chicken replies that she’ll eat it all by herself.

In this story, it’s satisfying, because we know that the chicken deserves to eat all the bread. This is considered fair. It would not be the same story if all the animals helped during every step and the chicken still ate all the bread herself. It also would be very different if the dog went through all the work of making it and the chicken decided to take it for herself. These stories wouldn’t be considered fair, and would likely leave us feeling uncomfortable, or even angry.

Not every story is as clear cut as “The Little Red Hen.” A similar story, “The Ant and the Grasshopper” repeats the situation where one character gathers food and another character does not, leaving the unhelpful character hungry in the end. However, in this story there are a few essential differences.

First, the grasshopper wasn’t gathering food because (depending on the version) he was singing, dancing, or playing the fiddle. This immediately casts undertones that feel uncomfortable to any artist, implying that creation of art isn’t actually contributing to the world, and it was foolish and morally wrong to create it when you should be doing real work.

Second, the story implies that the grasshopper and ant act differently because it is their nature to act differently, which brings in a whole element of determinism and might make readers feel unsettled depending on whether or not they feel people should be helped or punished for differences that cause some degree of societal harm. In the story, if the grasshopper truly didn’t know any better, or didn’t know how to store food for the winter, is it entirely his fault for not helping gather food? Should he have been punished, or taught how for the following year?

Third, the consequence for playing music all summer in the warm weather was being locked out in the cold and starving to death. This is a much more extreme punishment than the animals in the little red hen story faced. While it generally feels satisfying to think of unhelpful people not getting to enjoy fresh bread, and the person who worked hard on it getting rewarded— it feels pretty unsettling to think of a fiddle player starving to death in the winter.

Why does it make us so uncomfortable when stories don’t adhere to the kind of justice that we expect? When a fictional character dies in a grand sacrifice, letting their name go down in history, and changing the world for the better, we’re sad, but it feels satisfying and right, somehow. But when a beloved character dies due to a wrongful execution, or an infection that’s never treated, or a stray bullet fired by a soldier who never knew them, we are outraged.

We react very strongly to our idea of a just world being stripped from us. Even those of us who do like our stories to be a little unjust, using descriptors like “dark” or “gritty,” will be horrified or angry every time a terrible immoral character is praised and rewarded and our beloved protagonists are insulted, stripped, tortured, killed, and forgotten.

We don’t like thinking of the world as unjust, and even when it has no real-world consequences, like in a fictional narrative, we almost always prefer the lie.

Buffy: Does it ever get easy?
Giles: You mean life?
Buffy: Yeah, does it get easy?
Giles: What do you want me to say?
Buffy: Lie to me.
Giles: Yes. It’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and… everyone lives happily ever after.
Buffy: Liar.

-Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lie to Me

The problem is, we also prefer the lie in real life.

We prefer to think that there is some sort of moral balancing act in the universe. We tell ourselves things like “If you just work hard and are a good person, good things will come your way.”  “You’ve got good karma.” “What goes around comes around.” “He’ll get his.” “Everything will be okay in the end, if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

We love thinking this way, for obvious reasons. It’s reassuring, and gives us motivation and hope that we need to accomplish anything, and to be good people. How cold-hearted it would be if a friend came to us, upset and lonely, and we said, “There’s no actual guarantee anything will get better.” It’s cruel to say, and hard to believe, so instead we tell them, “Things will get better soon. No one deserves it more than you.”

At first, clinging to the idea of a ‘just world’ seems beneficial. It’s a motivational tool, it gives us meaning, and it helps us comfort each other.

Only, it doesn’t. It also turns into a terrible force against empathy whenever real tragedy meets anyone. Believing that the world is just is irreconcilable with the belief that morally good, kindhearted people can suffer horribly or die lonely. But they do. And we prefer the lie of the just world so much, that sometimes instead of letting go of that comforting idea, we try to find some way that the people who suffered were wrong.

If it’s a just world, only bad people suffer. So if that person is homeless and hungry, maybe it was his own fault for not saving his money, like that grasshopper in the story. If someone was killed, maybe it was because they were acting threatening. If someone was raped, maybe they dressed wrong, or drank too much, or went a place they shouldn’t have. If someone dies of a heart attack, we’ll talk about how they should have eaten better or taken better care of themselves. We’ll look through a victim’s history, picking their life apart for irrelevant details— they stole something once, they had lots of partners, they did drugs, they ate unhealthily and didn’t exercise, they made stupid choices. Anything we can find that we can define as ‘immoral’ we bring up so that it makes more sense why something bad happened.

This is called ‘victim blaming’ and is incredibly harmful. It strips empathy from us. Normally caring people, who would never picture themselves hurting someone when they’re down, do just that. Instead of saying, “I’m so sorry, how can I help?” they say, “You deserved it. That would never happen to me.

This is terrible. It’s wrong, and it’s never, ever okay. In a just world, victim blaming would never happen. But this isn’t a just world, and it happens all the time.

Even those of us who know and acknowledge that the world isn’t fair still sometimes fall into this harmful fallacy. Embracing that the universe does not reward ‘goodness’ or punish ‘evil’ is scary. It is terrifying to believe that bad things could happen to you for no reason. You could get sick and never get better, someone you love might never love you back, your house could burn down, some kids could steal your cat and torture it for fun, and you could die in a car crash tomorrow on your way to work.

Who wants to acknowledge those possibilities? How could you ever sleep at night? It’s really scary, and I don’t blame anyone for using the just world fallacy to get through their day to day life. Sometimes it is kind to believe in. Sometimes it really is helpful to lie to ourselves.

But when bad things happen, we can’t start assigning blame. We must break down the fallacy, let our guard down, and embrace that reality that terrible things can happen to anyone for no reason. Tragedy isn’t contagious and we’re not helping ourselves by shutting the world’s hurt away in quarantine.

So when you hear of something terrible happening to someone, please let yourself be scared. Let yourself feel what means that something bad could happen to you, not because you deserve it, but because “deserving it” has no meaning to the universe. Then, try to stop thinking about that fear in terms of yourself, and just think about who has actually suffered. Try to help them, or those who love them. Try to help our culture rid itself of the “just world” shield when it needs to so that we can collectively experience empathy and show compassion.

This world is not just, but we can be.

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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.

Five Tips on Writing Titles for Those Hopelessly Bad at Writing Titles

This post isn’t about the word “title” necessarily. It’s a fairly neutral word unless you’re the one responsible for creating them. The word “title” is only ever terrifying for writers.

The saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover doesn’t apply to titles, presumably because traditionally published writers don’t necessarily have any control over their cover art, but they’re entirely responsible for the title of their piece. Titles are also an essential and integrated part of the story, essay, or poem in a way that cover artwork isn’t (unless we’re discussing picture books, comics, graphic novels, or graphic memoirs, of course.).

We know that they’re important and that we will be judged by them before anyone ever reads our work. Because of this, it pains me to say that I’m still unable to create consistently good titles. For me, they require a great deal more mental energy than any other part of my work, including opening and ending sentences.

I’ve tried to put a lot of thought into what makes a title successful and what makes it fail. Even if mine aren’t always strong, I can usually pick out the excellent from the mediocre in others’ pieces, and I can appreciate the different levels on which they succeed as a part of the work.

So, in an exercise of the blind leading the blind, I’m going to try to give advice to other writers reading this who struggle with titles.

Here are five strategies for writing titles when you feel hopeless and have no ideas.

  1. Look for Title Conventions in your Genre
    If you’re writing genre fiction, odds are there are some titles that will instinctively sound like they belong in your genre and titles that sound distinctly outside it. That’s because over time, enough books fell into those same naming conventions that they grew connotations that associate them with the genre. Some examples I’ve noticed include:
    .
    Fantasy- Blank of Blank
    (e.g. Goblet of Fire, Game of Thrones, Wizard of Earthsea, Lord of the Rings)
    Alternative Fantasy- Adjective Noun
    (e.g. The Golden Compass, American Gods)
    Mystery- Book Titles that Sound like Titles of Other Things
    (e.g. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
    Paranormal Romance- Puns, Alliteration, Some Level of Humor
    (e.g. You Slay Me, Dead Witch Walking, Dead Until Dark)
    Horror: Name
    (e.g. Carrie, Dracula, Frankenstein )
    .
    Granted, there are many books in each genre that don’t follow those conventions at all and there are many books in each genre that follow the conventions I’ve listed for the other genres. But, if you’re incredibly stuck in trying to think of a title, it might help to look through what’s common in your genre and use that as a template.
    .
  2. Long, Confident Titles
    These titles might be my favorite. They catch the eye right away because they’re longer than what we expect, and because of this they have an essence of confidence that can help convey a more modern or humorous tone.
    .
    One of my friends, K. M. Aleena, has several great titles that use this method.“I Bet it’s Snowing in Houston”
    “Well, You Asked Me to Read Your Future” 
    “Things I’ve Broken While Drunk” 

    In fact, of three titles I’ve ever been specifically complimented on, two of them were of the longer variety (“Let me describe the many reasons why you have no chance with this woman” and “Things Straight Girls Probably Don’t Do”).

    My only caution is that these titles generally need to be earned. They should have something to do with the subject matter, theme, tone, or some combination of those three. There needs to be a reason.

    For example, the poem by Billy Collins: “Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles” 

    Also consider using the very end of an enormously long sentence or idea. You get the fun of the ridiculously lengthy title while still having the actual title remain manageable to write down on a notecard when recommending it.4f4cf0f9e7a0b5f685768110.L

    lydia_BK

  3. One Word Titles
    If you’re not having much luck at this point, why not try a less risky title. The one word title releases you from a lot of pressure, because it’s simple and can relate to the subject matter or theme without becoming too much of the poem itself.
    .
    As a word of caution, these titles will probably not draw much attention to your work. If your book is in a stack of books or your poem is in a long anthology, it might not be the one to which someone first flips.

    However, if you know you’re bad with titles, these can minimize how much attention they pay to the title and let the rest of the poem speak for itself. It also sounds a bit more important and serious than the long, humorous titles.

    The difficult part here is that you need to choose the right word, because a lot of emphasis will be placed on it. Try to avoid simply using a word that describes the subject matter. Sink more into the theme of the piece.

    Nikki Giovanni has some good examples of the One-Word-Title such as “Legacies” and “Resignation.”

    .

  4. Using Your First Line as a Title
    If you’re still stuck, look over the material that is already in your piece of writing. This works best for poetry or very short flash fiction, though if you’re writing something longer, if there’s a sentence anywhere in your work that might do better as a title, try it out.
    .
    Sometimes what stops us from being able to think of a title is simply that our piece is already finished. There is no work left for the title to do, so every title seems to just be excessive or take away from the piece. In these instances, it might be helpful to consider taking a piece of the work and using that as your title instead.

    As an example, many of E. E. Cummings poems are titled this way, (how else could “l(a” ever be titled?) and I’ve found it to be a useful strategy myself at times.
    .

  5. Ask a Friend
    An excellent poet, who I may have mentioned in this blog before, Philip Pardi visited SUNY Oswego’s Living Writers Series. He has a book called Meditations on Rising and Falling which is an excellent title, and many of his poems within the book have great titles as well.
    .
    I listened to him talk and answer questions and then we went out to eat with some other young writers. At some point, I (or someone else) asked if he could give some advice on how to write titles. He admitted that one of his friends had helped with the titling of his book, and that he was grateful because it pulled his work together in a way that made it much stronger.

    So even excellent writers who sometimes create excellent titles have difficulty with it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in running some ideas by other people and asking for help in creating a title for your work. Sometimes when we’re truly stuck, we just need a new pair of eyes.

As a last piece of advice: Titles are hard to make, but when you do it right, they’re strong. They carry a lot of weight and do a lot of work.  A good title does not label a piece of writing. A good title builds on a piece of writing. 

My Muse is an Abstract Concept Who Likes Naps and Pancakes.

If you hang out in writer-circles for long enough, you’ll inevitably hear about muses at some point. Individual artists have different ideas about what muses can do and what form they take. We discuss if they exist and what that existence or lack thereof might mean for an artist. Some people— the atheists of the writing world— find belief in muses silly, and others find it comforting.

The original muses were goddesses. There were nine of them: Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania. These goddesses were all sisters, and the daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus. Together they personified knowledge and the arts and provided inspiration.

Now, more often it’s not a religious concept but a fantastic one. The muses at some point transformed from goddesses to beings which have more in common with imaginary friends. There is still a bit of magic involved, but the relationship is not standardized between artist and muse at all.

In a TedTalk, Elizabeth Gilbert suggests that the reason muses (by any name, she refers to them as ‘geniuses’) are so attractive is because they allow us to redirect pressure away from the artist onto an external force. She describes it as “a psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work.”

This might seem odd at first. What is wrong with writers that we don’t want blame placed on us for the things we are writing? It makes a bit of sense once you consider how our culture views art. An unsuccessful piece of writing earns a large pile of rejections and lots of thoughtful criticism from family members, friends, and random people on the internet telling the writers that maybe they ought to do something more productive with their lives. A successful piece of writing earns all of that, plus publication and an expectation that the writer now has the ability to access something secretive and creative that no one else can. The family members, friends, and random people on the internet ask where the ideas come from and maybe even say they wanted to be a writer. Famous writers are praised and elevated and their egos inflate like red balloons… until they are criticized again or sit down to write something else, at which point those same red balloons deflate while flying around the room making unpleasant noises.

Gilbert seems to use her muse like a scapegoat for dealing with all of this. She says, 

“And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right? So this was how the ancient artist was protected from, for example, certain things like too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant, you couldn’t take all the credit for it. Everybody knew you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.”

 

However, the blame-soaking muse is only one of many. Stephen King describes his muse more like a drug dealer. 

 

“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling tropes and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because that guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.” 

(Stephen King, On Writing, page 144). 

 

Unlike Gilbert, King feels constantly indebted, rather than released from pressure. He works to serve the muse, not the other way around. King’s muse is also much less romanticized, and reading through the description, one might begin to notice what might be an unhealthy dependency on the guy. I think many writers can relate to the feeling of giving hours and hours of work to a piece of writing, then feeling completely justified when they get a taste of the inspiration. All the Writer’s Crippling Self Doubt, frustration, and effort is worth it when the ideas and words start to flow.

A band called Whitebrow has a song about the songwriter’s muse where he describes her more like an on-again-off-again lover who he desperately hopes will come back every single time she leaves him. 

 

“My Muse has left for the hills 
and she’s taken my inspiration.


One day she’ll come back to me. 
One day she’ll come back right here.
One day she’ll come back to me
and make all the muddy waters clear.”

 

Here too, the muse is personified as the one who has the inspiration. The writer must earn the company of the muse in order to get the inspiration, somehow, but this always feels like a fair deal. You can’t stay mad at a muse long.

Not everyone is dependent on a personification to help them write, though. I’m certain there are many authors who believe that real writers just get to work like everyone else and refine their craft.

A fantastic poet named Philip Pardi said once that sometimes he believes in the muse and sometimes he doesn’t. The day I met him at the Living Writers Series at SUNY Oswego, he believed, but perhaps in the days before or after he did not. He’s a muse agnostic.

I suppose I am too. I’m a big believer in awful, forced first drafts that become good writing through revision. I believe that poetry is not necessarily magical or spiritual and that believing so is often a part of why many people are intimidated to write and read it. When we take away the mysticism, what is left is a skill to learn like cooking, building, and mathematics. It gets people away from the doubt about whether they’re real writers if they don’t sense some voice telling them the words to put on the page. I also think that getting away from the idea of divine insight makes revision more fun. If your first draft came from the muse, how could your revision possibly improve on pure, magical inspiration? Deciding that your first drafts are just whatever you jotted down makes it a lot easier to admit the piece needs work.

But then again, sometimes the words flow so easily, it’s almost a spiritual experience. Every once in a while the ideas, memories, music, and lines all weave together as if outside my influence. Sometimes characters decide their choices for themselves. Sometimes poems grow in my brain when I’m actively trying to do other things. 

When this happens, it’s easy to call that sensation “inspiration given from a muse.” The secret is that muses are not exclusive to artists at all. Muses, if we decide they exist, are in great abundance. Everyone has moments when everything just seems to come together. You can see this for yourself when a boy completes a puzzle, a woman realizes she’s in love, or a student says “Oh, I get it!”  

Neil Gaiman explained this concept well in response to the common question “Where do you get your ideas?” 

 

“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.” 

 

I believe that is the truth. Everyone feels motivated and compelled to explore ideas occasionally. The hard parts are doing something about it when it happens and getting it to happen with some regularity.

The first time I took the word “muse” seriously at all, it was in my ‘Introduction to Poetry’ course in college. My professor called free-writing “muse writing” and it stuck for me. Muse writing consisted entirely of writing without stop until the words started becoming interesting, and using that as raw material later to shape written work. It was never stressed that we needed to believe that someone was giving us the words to write down, but somewhere in the phrase implied that by doing this we were tapping into words we might not have written otherwise.

When you have a muse, he isn’t going to chat all the time. He’s usually the kind of person to show up late or cancel plans last second. So you really need to get a schedule established if you want him to have a sliver of a chance remembering when you want him there. Invite him every morning at 8:00 a.m. or every evening at midnight, and he’ll start showing up. Of course, he’ll still probably miss some days or weeks and show up when you don’t want him around too, but it’s good enough. Muse writing is a way of giving him a call and inviting him over.

Or, in non-magical terms: If you start writing every day, you’ll eventually have some great ideas. More than that, you’ll be ready for those ideas, notice them, and know how they might benefit your writing.

Why do writers so often talk about it in the way that sounds more like a fairytale? Why have specific genders, personalities, and relationships associated with feeling motivated and having ideas?

Well, honestly, it’s fun. It’s comforting to personify ideas, and I think a lot of writers can’t help but think of the world in that way. We build our lives around stories and made up people in our heads, so it’s pretty obvious why some of us like assigning character traits to the abstract concept of what gives us inspiration. It also gives writers a narrative to fall back on (the muse never stopped by) during periods of Writer’s Crippling Self Doubt. Maybe it’s also a bit of an inside joke to talk about our muses in the same way we talk about “killing our darlings” when we need to delete sections of books we’ve spent months on or erase characters we love for the good of the writing. It’s not quite the truth that we’re hearing voices and killing our loved ones all the time, but on an emotional level it sometimes feels that way.  

My own muse is not a goddess, a blame-taking fairy, a sketchy guy in the basement, or a fickle lover. She’s a roommate who loves naps more than anything else in the world. She spends the majority of her time sleeping, often in my bed, until her hair gets tangled and she drools on the pillow.

When I need to talk to her, I try to shake her awake. She’s a heavy sleeper, (and can sleep for months at a time like a bear) but sometimes she mumbles for a while about what she’s dreaming. Most of the time it doesn’t make much sense, but it gives me something to write about.

Some of her ideas are bad or completely incoherent, but on good days she’ll wake up and give me all sorts of brilliant advice while I make her pancakes. She’s encouraging and pleasant when she’s awake, and always reminding me that my stories are important. More often than the pancake mornings, though, are the nights where she wakes up on her own and shakes me awake because she needs to talk. Sometimes I decide to sleep and ignore her, but when I listen to what she has to say, I never regret it. 

 

What’s the word? I know this… It’s on the tip of my tongue…

I’m a terribly forgetful person. I’m prone to losing things I was just holding a moment ago or forgetting details of a conversation I just took part in. I’m bad with names, faces, places, directions, and dates. And perhaps worst of all, I’m prone to forgetting the word I was just about to use.

Most people experience this occasionally, even those with a brilliant memory. There is this moment where you feel the apparition of the word creep backwards along the edges of your brain before slipping inside a fold of dark tissue and dispersing completely. In that moment, there is a physical need to reach out and pull it forward, as if you could materialize and give voice to that word if only it was a little closer. It is the same feeling as trying to recall a dream or a distant memory from childhood that seems so vivid and urgent— right until the moment you’re beginning to describe it. 

This is often referred to as “TOT” as in “Tip of my Tongue” because so often the feeling is described as “Oh, the word is right there on the tip of my tongue.” I love this description, because I like picturing a little ghost word balancing on someone’s tongue, either to be flicked out into the world as a vocalization or to accidentally be swallowed whole. 

This is particularly frustrating when the message you’re attempting to convey is urgent, or when you’re writing and know that only one particular word contains the perfect music, connotation, and meaning for this particular line of poetry and you just can’t think of the darn thing. 

It also happens on a larger scale for writers all the time. Occasionally a perfect line of dialogue or stanza will bubble up while I’m out in public or just about to fall asleep. Other times it’s even more important— a realization about which main character should die and how, or how the climax of a trilogy should unfold. 

When these thoughts start to slip away, it’s frightening. A single word you might retrieve, but this is bigger, more complex, and far from common knowledge. It is unique to your brain, and if it’s no where to be found there, it’s no where at all. 

If you find this happening to you as much as I do, here are some suggestions for how to approach the situation. 

 

  1. Notecards

    Before you lose the idea or the word, write it down. This only works if you’re aware that the thought is important while you’re first having it, and it requires fast action. Still, I find this method useful for myself and have adapted to it pretty well over the years. 

    You’ll need a small notepad, flashcards, or even a folded up sheet of paper that you can keep somewhere on your person wherever you go. Personally, I keep one notepad next to my bed, another on my desk, and a bunch of notecards in my purse. Once, one of my friends asked, “I never understand what women fill their purses with” and gestured towards mine. I opened it to reveal a wallet, notecards, and a collection of pencils and pens in various colors. If you’re not a purse holding sort of person, I recommend decently sized pockets. 

    I love that Anne Lamott discussed this same practice in Bird by Bird, because it convinces me that this is a perfectly normal thing for writers: 
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    “I used to think that if something was important enough, I’d remember it until I got home, where I could simply write it down in my notebook like some normal functioning member of society. But then I wouldn’t.

    …That is one of the worst feelings I can think of, to have a wonderful moment or insight or vision or phrase, to know you had it, and then to lose it. So now I use index cards.

    … I think that if you have the kind of mind that retains important and creative thoughts— that is, if your mind still works— you’re very lucky and you should not be surprised if the rest of us do not want to be around you.”  

    -Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (pg 135-137).

    The hardest part isn’t actually remembering to write these things down. You quickly get used to that, and it honestly trains you to recognize important ideas, words, and lines more easily. The difficult part is keeping track of these notecards and remembering to use them the next time you can’t remember what your idea was. It’s all well and good if you remember that you’ve forgotten the essential adjective in that insulting line of dialogue for your villain, because now you can simply take out your flashcard, but it doesn’t help you at all if you can’t even remember that you had a line of dialogue written in the first place.

  2. Asking questions and exploring thought patterns. 
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     “The notecard idea is great for people who remember to plan ahead, but what about those of us who forget the notecards themselves?” 
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    One thing that helps me is to directly address the TOT feeling as it’s happening. (This strategy works best if you’re in a comfortable place of communication such as talking with a friend or writing alone at a desk. It’s not recommended during public speaking.)

    Most of the time, your first instinct will be to ask someone else. If you’re in a large group, and you’re trying to remember a word, feel free. Or, if you’re on your own, try googling the idea and looking for definitions. There are even forums of people dedicated to helping you remember what that word was.

    However, I don’t recommend this in some situations. First, if you’re only speaking with one other person, the tip-of-your-tongue phenomenon is often contagious and soon your conversational partner won’t remember the word either. Now, not only have you forgotten what word you were about to say, but the entire conversation is derailed and is now more about the missing word than the idea you needed the word to express. The whole idea slips away.

    Second, if what you’re forgetting is an idea about a character or plot point or anything relating to your personal writing, you can’t expect anyone else to remember this better than you. Even if you find yourself giving in to the thoughts of “but I told them all about this idea a week ago and they really liked it so they must know!” you need to take a breath and remember that there is a very real possibility that their life is more urgent and worth their memory than your fiction (or nonfiction, or poetry) and no matter how much they loved everything you said, they won’t be able to recite to you what that idea was. There are, of course, exceptions, but I believe there are better ways than directly asking, “What did I say I was going to have that character do?”

    So now what? That plot point is slipping and if you chase it backwards, it will disappear into the void and you’ll never get it back. Don’t chase it backwards. Try coming up from behind it and chasing it forwards. 

    “What are you talking about?”

    I’m talking about a change of approach. Instead of focusing on trying to remember that exact idea, take a breath and start from the beginning of your thoughts again. Go all the way back to the beginning of your conversation or your page or your outline (or at least reasonably far back) and slowly follow your train of thought from there. Often you will take the same turns in logic, make the same associations, and end up with the same idea you had before. You’re not remembering it, exactly, but you are figuring it out again, which serves the same purpose. Sometimes it’s easier to think forward than backward. 


  3. Using other words.
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    If you’re in the moment and need to communicate something urgently, but can’t get the word to come out, try using any other words you can to express that idea.

    Your substituted words might not communicate it perfectly, and will probably end up leaving you using much simpler words, but you can continue on with your main thought. Dwelling on a single word might lead you to lose the entire idea. If you try this, you may face a little teasing from your conversational partner (especially if that person is a close friend or sibling) but they’ll probably remind you of the right word anyway. “Did you mean ____?” “..Yes that.”

    If it saves your ego any, you can tell someone that you knew a better word and simply misplaced it: “I’m forgetting the word, but…”

    “But what if that didn’t work or it’s more important and complex than a simple word? What if you forgot the notecards and retracing your thought patterns didn’t work? You asked people around you and searched online all to no avail. The word or idea is gone forever! Now what?” 

    Try writing it out using other words anyway. I know they aren’t the right ones, but it’s better than losing the whole thought. If it’s a whole climax you forgot, try creating a new climax and writing this one out. It won’t be the old one, sure, but this is a last resort and it’s better than having no climax at all.

    Sometimes the act of creating a new bit of phrasing, line of poetry, character arc, piece of dialogue, or ending to a book can actually help your writing. While often your first idea was plenty good, sometimes the new one is fresher and escapes a few cliches or overused tropes. Or maybe your first one was as brilliant as you remember, but that only means you are capable of brilliance on your first try. Be confident. You’re a creative person and can come up with more than one good idea. And if your new idea is terrible, or you somehow remember the old one and still like it better in a few months, you can always come back and revise.

    (*I actually advise this method as a revision technique for when you’re truly stuck on a piece of writing, even if you haven’t forgotten your original idea. Set aside whatever you’re working on, whether poem, essay, chapter, or outline and don’t look at it. Now start over and write the whole thing again.  

    “But isn’t this a waste of time and creative energy?” you might be asking. “I already wrote it once and I’m having trouble with moving forward, not with what I’ve already written. I don’t want to do that all over. The other one was better.”  

    Fair points, I feel the same way every time I do it. Get all that out of your system. Now read over both versions and realize you’ve just opened up entirely new paths to take. If you felt completely stuck on your original piece, you now have options to choose from. You can identify which aspects of which version are best and take those, and it might lead you to a place of new creativity.)

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So start carrying some paper and jotting down ideas or trying to retrace the steps of your own thinking. It will help sometimes.

But even when you accidentally swallow your words or very important ideas, don’t panic. Your new phrasing may be better than the old. Being forced to explain your ideas without falling back on the simplest or most appropriate word to describe it may help you explore the idea more fully. Making peace with swallowed and lost words or ideas can lead to greater creative richness. 

Trust yourself to think of new ideas that will be just as grand. 

“Ya’aburnee, Elflock, and Sonder” – Why We Love Sharing Words We Never Use

You all know by now that I love words. If you’ve read my ‘About’ page, you know that many of my friends do as well, so it should come as no surprise when I say that several of them routinely share words with me over social media. Some of these come in the form of words from other languages, others are English words I might not already know due to age or obscurity, and others are made up. One thing they all have in common are interesting definitions.

My friends are hardly the only ones who share this pastime. Usually the unusual or unknown words are shared from websites, blog posts, articles, and tumblr accounts where other people are collecting and sharing them among wide audiences. There are even subreddits ( custom-made subforums on reddit.com) dedicated to “interesting and novel words” and creating new words.

I’ve found words like these from pages of untranslatable words from other languages

Litost – a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.

Mamihlapinatapei – The wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.

Ya’aburnee – Literally: “You bury me.” A declaration of one’s hope that they will die before another person because it would be so difficult to live without them. 

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And I’ve found other words in lists like these from pages showing “obsolete words” we should use again:

Apricity – The sun’s warmth on a cold winter’s day.

Curglaff – The shock one feels upon first plunging into cold water

Elflock – Tangled hair, as if matted by elves.

 

The idea behind both of these is more than the literal grouping. These aren’t just lists of words from other languages or words that aren’t spoken anymore. Very few of us are truly interested in those things beyond admiring the romantic idea of them, or we would simply pick up foreign dictionaries and translation guides and start reading very old literary texts. If you asked most of the people who share these links over social media to start these— that this thick book full of complicated, obscure words is just the thing for them, or that that they would really love to read this English to Tshiluba dictionary from cover to cover— they might look at you oddly, give you a short thanks, and set the books on their shelf, never to be read.

Instead, these lists and websites are a persuasive argument: You should start using these words. You should know them. They should become a part of your life and how you process the world around you. 

And many of us are persuaded. However, we do not use them in conversation as just the words themselves, because that was never the intention of those who brought the words to us. The intention is not really sharing the words at all, but sharing the definitions. When we send them to our friends or post about them online, the definitions are always included, and it is a discussion of the concepts, emotions, and images presented in them that brings us pleasure. 

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http://www.other-wordly.tumblr.com )

These images are from the tumblr account Other Wordly which prides itself on the fact that these words are real

“Some of them are coined words, meaning words that were made up by someone, but that later entered into common usage. Some are bastardizations or combinations of other words, and others are from a language other than English” 

Her definition of ‘real’ words is agreeable, but doesn’t seem exactly limited to official standard English either, particularly with the part about “bastardizations” and “combinations of other words.” What’s interesting is that people are concerned enough to ask if these words are real (maybe after not finding them in their dictionaries) and she soothes the worry in this way. There is a need for validity here that reminds me of the way we are so hurt when we read a story we believe is true, only to learn large parts were fictionalized. It reminds me of the emotional reaction of people discovering an anonymous post on the internet could simply be telling a made-up story. “What do you mean ‘people on the internet lie?’”

I don’t mean to suggest these words are lies, though, or that they are in any way barred from our language. As I’ve said before, language is a living thing. Even the words which are from other languages or are created for the purpose of sharing them online could be introduced and integrated to our language through simple use among enough people for enough time.

With that said, I believe that along with sharing these words comes an inherent resistance to actually integrating them into our daily language. These words begin to lack the emotion we first felt when reading them as soon as they’re separated from their definitions. The words don’t really capture these ideas— the definitions do. We feel an attachment to the written meaning that we can’t part with long enough to just use the word.

One of the best examples of this is the word “Sonder.” In every discussion of obscure and little-known words, this one comes up in conversation no matter where I seem to be. But every time, anyone who uses it is counting on someone asking them what it means so they can pull up the exact wording of the definition. 

 

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It’s easy to see why this would be shared: it’s a thought-provoking, sad, and beautiful idea that many of us experience. The concept this word represents is a sentimental and romantic one, without being overly cliched. It still gets to us.

However, in the strictest sense the word isn’t ‘real’ at all. It’s not obscure so much as it is new, because it was invented about a year ago on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and has since been passed around the internet.

On some level it doesn’t matter if any of these words are real or not. While some genres (like creative nonfiction or reliable dictionaries) rely on the relative accuracy and factuality of their contents, there are other genres (like poetry) which freely move between reality and imagination, resting at some place of truth.

These definitions describe ideas, realizations, feelings, and images that are otherwise difficult to convey and share with other people. When we find a word that drives us to share it with our friends, it is because it has woken something in us in the midst of our daily routines. It doesn’t matter whether they are real or not real so long as they’re true. The point isn’t whether you can find the words in the dictionary— the point is whether you can share a feeling with someone. These obscure words are titles, and their definitions are like short prose poems. 

On May 14, Amy Tan wrote on her Facebook page: 

“But from an early age, I was a writer because I had a feeling about words — that no one word was sufficient to describe what I really felt or saw or had experienced. I tried to find variations in a thesaurus. The nuances excited me, but the answers were not there. The word “love” was not enough to express what love was, nor was the word “unfair” able to capture why I felt I had been punished for what I did not do. The word “alone” did not capture what had happened last week or what might happen in the future.  A single word was like a left shoe that belonged to someone else and was too small, yet had to be worn because there was nothing else.” 

It’s one of the best descriptions of why we write that I’ve ever read. As much as I love words, what I love more is their combinations and the act of stringing them together to explain all of what could be held by each one. That is why I write this blog, trying week after week to explain all the weight on these words. 

But, words themselves are small, simple things when compared to the intricacies of fantasy and reality. We can never really expect words to hold all the weight of infinite, internal worlds, the weight of every story and all significance they might represent. They need other words to help them carry it. Single words can never express what we truly mean.

These ‘obscure’ words soothe the part of us that has a need to be expressed through language. They show us words untranslatable from other languages, words that have gone out of use even though their meanings are still relevant, or they show us new words for ideas that don’t yet have a resting place in the pages of our dictionaries. These words appeal to us because they imply and promise “all the other words you’ve heard couldn’t say this, but this word can.”

But of course, it is a false promise, a white lie. The words themselves are just as powerless alone as any word, and maybe more so because of the fact that they are old, uncommon, invented, or not in our language at all. The white lie is hopeful, though. The definitions attached give us the feelings that we don’t have words for, and isn’t that what all writing aims to do?

It is an interesting phenomenon to me, as a poet, that in a culture where the average reader has not read a poem since their last English class, these definitions are so appealing. I think that whether or not we have found the first poem or passage that opens us up and lets us feel alive, fresh, and new again— we yearn for it to happen.

We’re leaving our palms open, reaching for the right words with open hands, and when we find them, we want to share them and wake the world. Or, at least, I do.