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.

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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.