A Poet’s Guide on Defining Rhyme

I’ve been writing poetry for most of my life in some form or another, but only in the past four years did I really get the hang of what makes a poem successful. One big thing I’ve learned about my own poetic aesthetic was that I am a free verse poet. Not to say that I don’t appreciate sonnets, haikus, sestinas, villanelles, and all other forms of formal and fixed verse, but in my own work, I find my writing is best when I create my own form as I go rather than falling into already established poetic patterns. 

I’m lucky in this in some ways, because the majority of literary journals are looking for free verse poetry, so my own preference is clearly also preferred by a good deal of poetry readers of today. However, I have also faced some criticism from those who prefer fixed verse poetry. The most common thing I hear against free verse is that poets who write it are “lazy” or have no skill. 

I can see how people who haven’t looked closely at many contemporary poems might not clearly see the effort put into them. Most of us have a poetry education that is limited to some Shakespeare we read in high school, and maybe that one poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. Our English classes have mostly taught us that perfect end rhyme is what makes a poem a poem, so when we read free verse, the first reaction might be “they didn’t even try!” Even in a college poetry class, I heard someone ask, “How is this a poem?” to a piece which was fairly “normal” as far as poems go—left-margin bound, lines moderate in length, descriptive, and somewhat narrative. 

So, for all those reading poetry who are not quite seeing the appeal of free verse, stay with me a minute. What if I told you that a lot of free verse has way more rhyme than fixed verse? It’s just better at hiding. Much of the contemporary poetry produced today has moved on to more subtle forms of rhyme, but it’s still there. Granted, not all poetry has rhyme, but most actually does, and I bet if you look a little closer at the next poem you read, you’ll find it.

To explain some of the different forms of rhyme, I decided to write you all a short, informational poem on rhyme. It doesn’t include all forms of rhyme, but it includes quite a few. (I’ll confess that I’m much better at assonance, consonance, and alliteration than I am at slant, near, and pararhyme, so if there’s something I could phrase better in those areas, leave a comment.)

I tried to keep to a loose AABBA rhyme scheme when appropriate, but the kinds of rhyme I use change from line to line, so be on your toes! 



A Poet’s Guide on Defining Rhyme

Most of you learned of poetry for the first time
with measured syllables and end rhyme.
From Dr. Seuss to William Shakespeare
there was nothing too complicated to fear. 
It was simple repetition of syllable at the end of a line. 

But there are a few other terms I can bestow
so there are far more rhymes you will know.
For instance, a feminine rhyme matches both syllables, but in contrast,
a masculine rhyme only matches the syllable in each line that’s last.
Pararhyme matches consonants, but you probably knew. 

It’s a difference that’s usually pretty slight,
but you shouldn’t mix up near rhyme and slant rhyme, alright?
Near rhyme matches one unstressed and one stressed syllable, you’ll find,
and slant rhyme matches not syllables, but last consonant sound.
Try not to confuse either with semi-rhyme when you’re writing.

Eye rhyme is challenging because our instinct is to rhyme “food”
with “rude,” “shrewd,” and “intrude,” not “good.”
But, in my opinion, forced rhymes are a little more fun
because if your words don’t quite rhyme, you can still make ‘em.
I hope you’re still with me. Am I still understood? 

There are internal rhymes separate from those at the end.
They appear as normal lines with matched sounds inside.
Alliteration always allows for very regular rhyme in verse
but to tickle at rhyme with subtlety, I find consonance worth the trouble,
though assonance allows a wonderful sort of flow, too. 

Some poets like end rhyme and meter
and others like free verse, 
but we all use rhyme in our lines
if you look close, listen,
and stay immersed. 

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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

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  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. 

Murder, Pride, and Charm

Q: What do you call two crows on a branch?
A: An attempted murder.

I’ve been traveling with my family the past week and my mom requested this blog post after never having heard the joke before. I explained that a murder was a group of crows in the same way that a pride was a group of lions, or a business was a group of ferrets.

“But why do they call it a murder? What are those terms? You should do a post on that.”

These terms are a part of language called a collective noun. Most of us remember that a regular noun is a person, place, or thing, so a collective noun is a collection of people, places, or things (usually things) taken as a whole, or described as a single unit.

The most common and least specific collective noun is “group” because it can be applied to almost any noun. A group of people. A group of chickens. A group of mountains. What we’re communicating is pretty clear, but we can get much more colorful with our collective nouns to really specify what we’re talking about. A team of people, a clutch of chickens, and a mountain range.

If we’re talking about a murder of crows (or a clutch of chickens), it is a special kind of collective noun called a term of venery. These are terms for groups of animals, mostly. They began with English hunting vocabulary in the Late Middle Ages, to describe various groups of animals they might be following. Lists were recorded in various books in the fourteenth to fifteenth century and proliferated like crazy as people decided to add more and more collective nouns.

One of these books, entitled Book of Saint Albans or Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms was written for and popular among wealthy men. Published in 1486, the contents of the book spread into the English language through common usage among a large enough number of people. Though collective nouns were “made up” for the book, they became actual words because people felt they were useful. Not all of the collective nouns were created at the time, but enough of them were that it’s notable.

At this point, in 2014, the majority of them are not incredibly useful, so most people don’t use or know very many of these terms. However, they still are available to our lexicon whenever we decide. The most common collective nouns still in use are probably pack, herd, flock, and pride.

Though the histories of many collective nouns aren’t particularly inspiring, I find the words to be quite poetic in some cases. They create potential for a lot of musical language, especially with alliteration, but also with consonance and assonance. Some of them also have strong connotations in some contexts, which could be helpful in a line of verse to create tone. A murder of crows just sounds so much more vivid than a “group” or even a “flock.”

Some of my favorites are the following:

Because of the personification:
A congregation of alligators
An army of ants
A colony of bats
A family of beavers
A business of ferrets

Because of the sound and music:
A flutter of butterflies
A pounce of cats
A charm of finches
A gaggle of geese
A knot of toads
A watch of nightingales

Because of the connotation:
A cackle of hyenas
A bed of eels
A swarm of flies
A cloud of gnats
A scourge of mosquitoes
A cluster of spiders

You can find more of them here.

I encourage their use for poetic value alone. I would love to read a fairytale where a little girl finds a knot of toads in the forest or read a book where a sailor falls from his ship into a bed of eels. I can almost feel the need to hold my breath and squeeze my eyes shut when I read “a cloud of gnats,” which is a physical reaction I would never have to “a lot of gnats.” There is something sensory about many of the terms of venery that bring more life and sensation to the words than unspecific collective nouns.

As for why the collective noun for crows became “murder,” I’m not sure. Maybe it has to do with crows’ taste for carrion in their scavenging. Crows have been seen eating flesh, potentially that of humans, and this certainly may have contributed. Still, though, we do not call groups of other scavengers, or even predatory birds, “murders.” Several myths involve crows’ relationship to death or the dead, as well. Trying to get to the bottom of our cultural perception of crows would take a much longer blog post and a good deal more research.

Theories about naming the collective noun “murder” all relate to the connotation of death that our culture has long since associated with crows, but any specific tale of its origins has been lost to history.

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: 
    .

    “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. 
    .
     “The notecard idea is great for people who remember to plan ahead, but what about those of us who forget the notecards themselves?” 
    .

    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.
    .
    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.)

.

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. 

Image 

 Image
Image
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. 

 

 Image

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. 

“Wet”

(beautiful word) 

Everyone has preferences in the things they read. For some, it’s magic and battle scenes, for others it’s deep introspection and philosophy. Some read for twists and surprises at the end, and others read for the ways characters change over time. 

In poetry, these preferences often have more to do with things like sound and rhythm— some people just love alliteration, and others find that any more than two words in a row  beginning with the same letter becomes repetitive. Some like rhyme and end stopped lines, and other people fall in love with the subtle music of assonance and consonance and the use of enjambment. Some people love narrative poetry, and others just want the emotion. 

I love things to be wet. 

It sounds odd at first, but to me, everything is more vivid when it’s wet. I think this is because rain and moisture in the air allows us to expand our sense of smell, and so I associate water with a richer experience of life. When it’s raining, we might love petrichor, and the smell of rain itself, but we also love the smell of the world. Rain shows us what we’re missing. 

Maybe a part of it is just because I am allowed to enter my own imagination more when I’m in the shower. The water opens up an inner universe that becomes dreamlike in its realness. The moments when I’m under the surface in a lake or ocean, I feel like I’m under the world, outside of time. Under the water, it’s like I’m back again in the weightlessness before my birth; I can feel the presence of a safe, temporary inside and a vast, unexplored outside.

All the times I’ve walked home in clothes drenched and heavy, or splashed through puddles filled with brown, limp leaves, or watched spaghetti moving like sea creatures in bubbling pots, or smelled the way steam brings oil and garlic to life, or watched the world through the hot tears gathering at the corners of my eyes— it all builds on my associations. Water seems to be present when I am feeling the most physically and emotionally. It taps into something in life that is present and important. 

Think about the poem by Ezra Pound 

“In a Station of the Metro” 

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough. 

Would that image be near as lasting if that was a dry brown branch? I don’t think it would. There is a slickness there where you can feel how easily you might slip trying to touch it, to hold on to it, and this allows the idea of the apparition to become more poignant. There is a fleeting emotion here— the faces in the crowd, the petals who might fall from the relentless impact of heavy raindrops, this wet branch. You can imagine losing yourself in the rain. 

Brigit Pegeen Kelly uses water in the most beautiful ways, and I am absolutely addicted to it. Her poem “The Leaving” comes alive with its use of wetness.

My father said I could not do it,
but all night I picked the peaches.
The orchard was still, the canals ran steadily.
I was a girl then, my chest its own walled garden.
How many ladders to gather an orchard?
I had only one and a long patience with lit hands
and the looking of the stars which moved right through me
the way the water moved through the canals with a voice
that seemed to speak of this moonless gathering
and those who had gathered before me.
I put the peaches in the pond’s cold water,
all night up the ladder and down, all night my hands
twisting fruit as if I were entering a thousand doors,
all night my back a straight road to the sky.
And then out of its own goodness, out
of the far fields of the stars, the morning came,
and inside me was the stillness a bell possesses
just after it has been rung, before the metal
begins to long again for the clapper’s stroke.
The light came over the orchard.
The canals were silver and then were not.
and the pond was–I could see as I laid
the last peach in the water–full of fish and eyes.

The pond brings out the texture of every piece of fruit, the cold starlight across the water, and the pride of doing something someone told you that you could not do. If she had simply set the peaches in a basket, the poem would not have evoked the true weight of this moment. I would not have known what it was to place the last peach. 

I fear for my love of wetness in verse. Sometimes I worry that it is becoming too strong in me— my longing for the words “wet,” “moist,” “damp,” “slick,” “drip,” “ocean,” “sea,” “steam,” “fog,” “juice,” and even words like “fluid,” “milk,” or “blood.”  There is something so completely capturing to me in anything liquid that appears in poetry.

It’s obvious in my own work. I wrote a novel in verse, and I think if it was condensed to a mere ten words, three of them would be “wet,” “juice,” and “fruit.”  I once wrote a poem entirely about my relationship with gasoline and the smell of exhaust from cars. 

I worry, sometimes, that I am not the only one, and that everyone is craving water. What if our community of readers is a parched one? Maybe we are all dehydrated and waiting to drink deeply from our poems to rejuvenate life for us for a little while. 

What happens when we drink too much and we can hear it constantly sloshing in our bellies? What happens when we flood our pages? I don’t want wetness to become the next “red as a rose.” I don’t want ripe fruit to ever be stale or dry. 

But occasionally, I also worry that no one else has this preference. Poetry with wetness is so beautiful to me, and I want to share that feeling with other people. 

I want my friends and family to be able to close their eyes and feel peaches rounding their palms in cold water. I want them to let their fingers slip from that wet black bough. I want them to listen for approaching storms and feel the way the air changes on their skin and in their lungs, just from the world anticipating the rain.

 

“Whale in the Cabinet”

(metaphor)

 

There is something really unique in the relationship between a novel and a writer. There are a lot of metaphors about a novel being a lover, a child, or some other person that the writer is supposed to care about, but if those metaphors were accurate, novelists would be the most negligent caregivers in the world. Even really dedicated writers give maybe four or five hours of their time to the story a day, and many more just leave the thing sitting there for months at a time while they research what to do with it or get distracted with other projects.

I just don’t think the parent-child relationship is quite right. I think parts of the metaphor are accurate. Writers have responsibility for their novels. They need to support their health and development, and they need to give all their effort. But as loving as it is, the relationship is often enormously awkward and guilt-inducing. So, allow me to introduce a new metaphor.

Novels are essentially whales in the cabinet. This occurred to me sometime in the fall of 2013 while talking to a friend and I’ve felt especially bad about my own whales since then.

What’s it like to have a whale in the cabinet? Well, every night you open the door and attempt to lift this enormous creature. It’s absolutely huge— you can’t see the whole thing, even. A good portion of this sea-beast might be in cabinet-Narnia.

You might struggle to heave a fin onto your shoulder and pull it a little. Some nights you even feel like maybe you made some progress. It seems like it might be sticking a little further out after your efforts. But then other nights, you just see it there, so far from the ocean, so helpless. You realize with horror just how weak you are and how ridiculously big it is, and how horribly far away the ocean is. And then you cry.

“How do I save you, whale?”

There’s no way you can move this whole whale. You’re just one little writer. No one’s even heard of you, really. No one is going to help you. You are the only person in the world who can get this whale to the water, the only one who cares about it. And if you don’t exhaust yourself every night just to move it maybe a few centimeters, or to just throw some water on it, the whale will die and it will be all your fault. Who entrusted you with a whale, anyway?

You go through school or work, you cook meals, you socialize, but all the while you know that the whale is still there. Sad. In the dark. You are growing to know the whale, and sometimes you even love it, and then guilt begins to eat you up from your belly. You bring it up to a few friends.

 

“I have a whale in my cabinet.”

 

“Really? I love whales. That’s so cool. What’s he like?”

“Don’t you think you could be spending your time better? Keeping whales in your cabinet isn’t a very reliable career option. It’s pretty irresponsible.”

“Huh. So how long has it been there?”

 

As time goes on you learn what gets the whale to move a little more. Maybe you’ve never done this before and maybe you have, but this whale is different from anything you’ve ever dealt with before. In your writing classes, you’ve carried fish from your cabinet to the ocean. They stay all wet and smell of fresh tides the whole time. Some of them have healthy, deep colors, their scales reflective and sparkling. Their mouths gasp and they panic a little on the walk there, but most shoot off into the water in good health and leave you feeling satisfied with a job well done.

But this is not a fish. It’s not even a porpoise. This is clearly the largest thing you’ve ever seen.

You imagine how much this whale could change the world. It has at least one giant brown eye (hopefully two, but it’s really squished) and when you watch it, you want to scream to the world how completely beautiful this whale is. You want to lead someone into your bedroom, throw open the cabinet door, and say “Look! This is my whale. It’s gorgeous and noble and mine.”

But you don’t, because then you see how sickly it is. It’s so far away from the ocean, and its skin is drying out no matter how much you pour on it. It’s crumpled, too, and the way it’s all shoved in your cabinet convinces you that it’s not only horrifically bruised but is probably developing scoliosis.

Before you know it, conversations about your whale become stressful.

 

“Didn’t you have a whale at some point? What happened with that?”

“Yeah… uh… it’s, um.”

 

“When are you planning on getting it back in the water?”

“Not for a while, I think. I’m just not sure how yet. I’ve been reading a lot about it, and I’ve practiced carrying fish a lot. It’s just… it’s so huge.”

 

“Can I see it?”

“NO! Not now. Not yet. It… it really looks awful. Oh, God, I’ll take care of it soon, I swear, and then you can see it.”

 

Inch by inch you move the whale. Maybe you find some friends who also have whales and you agree to help them move theirs if they help you move yours. With some assistance, it becomes easier, but it’s still your responsibility.

You grow familiar with your whale, and your loved ones do too as it moves gradually down the stairs and through the living room.

I like to imagine that eventually all whales make it to the ocean, and if they’re healthy enough, they find nice homes there and lots of people can enjoy watching and getting to know the whales.

Maybe your friends and family come to the shore to watch it and they compliment you saying,

 

“I really like that whale. I think you did a really good job getting it to the water.”

“It swims at a really nice pace.”

“This whale reminds me so much of a really healthy whale I saw once.”

 

Sure, there might be some other comments. Comments about how it swims crooked because of its twisted spine and the missing chunk of flesh from its tail, or how it appears a bit sickly at times— but gosh darn it, it’s your whale, and you did your best.

 

But, I wouldn’t know any of that, because I have two whales shoved in my cabinets right now, and I think they might be dying.

I’m sorry whales! I’ll start moving you again after I graduate, I promise.

 

(Also, if anyone is curious, poems are lobsters. Make of that what you will.)

ASMR and Frisson

(There’s a word for this?) 

A few years ago, a friend of mine started to play with my hair while we talked. She ran her fingers up my neck to where it met my skull, and a pleasant tingling sensation went through the back of my brain along my scalp. I tried to describe this to her, and she told me that she shared that sensation when people brushed her hair.

We shared the moment of it, and I felt relieved that she understood. It sounded odd even to me, and I wasn’t sure if it was anything anyone else had felt before. After talking about it for a while, we still couldn’t quite articulate what that feeling was— it wasn’t sexual, it wasn’t like a limb falling asleep, it wasn’t really anything other than a nice sensation on the back of our heads.

A while after that point, my brother gave me a word for it, or rather, an abbreviation: ASMR. It stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, and not everyone experiences it. My brother does, though, and he introduced me to an entire community of people online who try to trigger this response in other people through youtube videos or other recordings.

While my experiences with ASMR are few and far between (because I don’t have people playing with my hair very often outside haircuts and rare, affectionate moments in friendships) many people experience ASMR from all sorts of sounds— clicking, brushing, white noise, typing, the sounds of lips touching, certain speech patterns or accents, or whispers. In fact, many of the videos online are just called “whisper videos.” These are often long, because many people with ASMR use them to help with insomnia or to relax and reach a more calmed state of mind.

ASMR is also triggered by close personal attention or watching someone perform a task. I sometimes have ASMR from watching someone paint or draw, but I know others can experience it watching instructional videos.

I noticed a while after this that I sometimes felt a sensation similar to it from certain music, images, or lines in books. These usually came with an emotional realization of some kind. As I discovered, this isn’t exactly the same as ASMR, but it still has a word. It’s called “frisson.” Frisson comes from a French word meaning “shiver” or “thrill” and is often felt as a sudden burst of emotion that evokes a physical reaction of tingling or shuddering sensation.

These can often come from climaxes of movies, shows, or books, or certain lines of poetry. I can reliably evoke frisson through watching music videos or listening to songs that seem to strongly represent what I know of a loved fictional character, or any videos that have an emotional realization component.

One thing that’s interesting to me is that it’s not limited to my first experience with that moment. You might assume that because it has to do with realization, it would only work during the initial experience, but I’ve actually found it stronger in subsequent experiences. There’s something about letting myself engage fully with a surge of emotional stimulus that lets me access the feeling of frisson.

Over the past weekend, I went to a poetry reading, and though there were many beautiful, emotional, thought-provoking poems read, I experienced frisson from listening to someone read the poem I already knew. Something about the familiarity let me engage with the emotions present in a more intimate way.

It doesn’t need to be anything exceptionally emotional either. I have experienced frisson from one-panel web comics.

Image

(http://www.snotm.com)

While the sensations of ASMR and frisson are a bit similar to me (both create a pleasant physical tingling sensation that begins along my skull) the two communities are very strict about making their differences known. ASMR is purely a physical response to sensations of touch, sound, or sight, and can be sustained for minutes. Frisson is a physical response intertwined with an emotional realization and is typically a sudden spreading of sensation that ends in seconds.

Having these words creates a great opportunity for engaging with the world. Because there is a word for frisson, there are communities where people can discuss the moments in all kinds of art that they experience so strongly it’s felt physically. Because there is a word for ASMR, there are communities of people to discuss the unique power of the simple sensory information that fills our world, and how our bodies and brains can engage with this in an intimate, inexpressible way.

It was quite a while before I saw my friend again. Life sometimes gets in the way of our connections, and it might have been about a year between when we had our conversation on the strange brain tingles and when it was brought it up again.

We went inside and I told her that that I had a word for her. I pulled up the page my brother had shown me on ASMR, and the realization made her smile.

“There’s a word for this?”

 

 

Semantic Satiation

(Old words)

 

It’s really astounding that we can look at these words without just seeing symbols so often. We usually read over words like little packages of meaning rather than looking at them for their individual letter shapes.

But, you know how sometimes a word is repeated way too many times? You just see a word so many times in a row. Just that same word, and then that word again, and the word again. Word, word word. And then, it doesn’t really look like the word “word.” It doesn’t look like language anymore. Is “word” spelled with those letters?  Does the word even look like how it sounds at all? It seems like it should be “werd” maybe. It’s so small, like you could pinch it between your fingers.

That’s called semantic satiation.

It happens whenever a word or phrase is repeated enough times that it temporarily ceases to have meaning, or appears wrong or unfamiliar. It doesn’t need to be only in print, though. It can happen vocally, too.

The other week some friends were discussing tasseling for a project we were working on. We had considered making some tassels, but we didn’t know how to tassel, or anything about tasseling, really. So one person said she would learn to tassel and become a tasseler. The tasseler tasseled tassels, and they were beautifully tasseled tassels, too. But at that point the group of us collectively decided we couldn’t take one more second of the word “tassel.”

As much as people tend to resist this feeling, I think semantic satiation actually helps people to see words in fresh ways.

Familiarity colors our perceptions. It’s one of the reasons that cliches are discouraged in writing— we need our words to be vibrant and fresh, and some phrases are like houses we’ve lived in our whole lives.

There’s a certain kind of feeling to semantic satiation, like standing in the front yard in the summer, staring at your house, and suddenly seeing it the way a stranger might. The color looks different, and those old bricks have more texture somehow. It’s not near as big as you thought. Have there always been so many vines?

Gertrude Stein once wrote a line of poetry that shows the effect I’m describing:

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

She later explained, “…I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.”

Semantic satiation is frustrating and unsettling sometimes, but other times I find it to be especially interesting, like finding out a secret that gives you a new perspective on your best friend.

I once wrote a poem entitled “Girl” where my attempt at artistic repetition inadvertently semantically saturated “girl.” It’s a familiar word, because it has a lot of cultural connotations: baby dolls, pink things, smallness, fragility, innocence, and associations of that nature. But, looking at “girl” as just a foreign combination of letters, it transformed.

I watched the round, furry face of the “g” and that little “irl” like a tiny, mischievous tail. I realized that stripped of all my connotations of the word, “girl” was much more like a frisky forest creature with a curled tail that hopped around and hoarded small treasures, leaves, and bits of string. The word “girl” was a mythical creature, and what a fun one to be.

In fact, this idea of “girl” was much more in line with who I felt I was during my girlhood than any of the cultural ideas I had been writing about.

Next time you encounter semantic satiation, let the conversation go something like this:

“Agh! It doesn’t look like a word anymore!”
“Well, what does it look like?”

Semantic satiation makes us finally pay attention to the sounds and sights of words as if they were a landscape we walk every day on autopilot, but today we’re in love. I say the word “word” every day, and there’s nothing particularly interesting about it until I see it with new eyes.

Did I ever notice how the “r” looks like the “w” and the “o” looks like the “d”? Had I really tasted “word” with its drawn out syllable and the subtle, tart flavoring of my accent? Could I have squeezed the “wor” and let my fingertip rest against the thin post of the “d”?  How would I have ever discovered that the word “word” was made to be pinched and eaten like candy?

At one point, a poet named Aram Saroyan wrote:

lighght

It’s controversial as to whether that’s really a poem, but just look at it. Have you ever paid so much attention to the silent letters of the word “light?” Have you ever thought so closely about “light” as a written word?

A friend and mentor of mine once discussed the poem with me, and pointed to it, saying “Can’t you just imagine swinging on the handlebars of those two gs?”

Semantic satiation lets me fall in love with simple words again. It’s a weird, sort of uncomfortable, hard to explain, confusing love, but that’s the best kind.