Exceptions to the Thesaurus Rule

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

-Stephen King

I’m sure many of you have heard this quote. It’s well known, and for a reason.

When you find yourself searching for words in the thesaurus during your writing, it usually means you’re thinking more about impressing people with grandiloquent language than thinking about articulating your story, narrative, or poem using the tools you already have. This is invariably a poor choice, because not only will the words you find alter the tone of your writing, but they might not even mean what you think they do.

A thesaurus is not a dictionary. Reading a thesaurus entry won’t actually tell you what any words mean. It includes lists of similar words, but similar does not mean interchangeable. Similarly, a dictionary is no replacement for engaging with words in your reading and everyday conversation.

If words were people, think of a dictionary as collection of photos. Looking at pictures of someone doesn’t mean you know that person. It will certainly help you recognize them, should you ever see them in the future, but you have still never met them.

And if dictionaries are full of photos, then thesauruses are a bit like the “People You May Know” list on Facebook. You know a word that is similar to that word, but you’ve never met before, and until you look up their picture, all you really have is their name.

This is why it’s not recommended to use a thesaurus actively when you’re writing. Imagine someone inviting you to show up to some event they’re planning with all of their friends. You ask them why you’re invited, seeing as you’ve never met before. Then they tell you “Well, you’re sort of like my friend, and I didn’t want to invite him, so I thought you could take his place.”

Who would ever agree to it? They’re not the same word for a reason. They have their own definition, their own connotation, their own etymology, cultural context, and flavor. You cannot simply substitute one for the other. It’s rude.

With that said, thesauruses are also useful things. Both dictionaries and thesauruses are important references for any writer, and I believe oversimplifying the issue can hurt our relationship with these books.

By agreeing with the Stephen King quote, I’m certainly not advising young writers to ban thesauruses from their homes. I’m not telling anyone to avoid touching them for fear of catching the disease that causes overuse of barely-relevant four-syllable words.

So, I would like to present three exceptions to the rule. Here are three times when you can find the right word(s) in a thesaurus.

  1. When you’ve forgotten the word you need 

    Sometimes you have the perfect word for the meaning you’re trying to convey. You’ve heard it before, used it before, and it is exactly right for this specific line of poetry or this sentence.

    But, you can’t remember what the darn thing is. What letter did it begin with?

    At these times, a thesaurus can be a fantastic way to find the right word. If you can remember any of the wrong words, you can look those up in the thesaurus, and the right word might be somewhere on that list. You’ll recognize it when you see it, and then you can get right back to work.

  2. When you’d like to meet new words

    If you’re looking to build your vocabulary, my first recommendation is always to just read more and pick up things naturally. But some of us are into word-of-the-day calendars and enjoy actively finding new words, and if this is the case for you, a thesaurus might be a good place to look.

    You can meet new people through common friends. Words you’re already familiar with can lead you into relationships with new ones who you might grow to like just as much.

    Say you’re pretty comfortable with the word “relationship” but you’d like to explore other words similar to it, and you end up with “liaison.” It’s a good word, but you can’t just invite it to the movies with the rest of your friends. Look up it’s definition, say it out loud a few times, and then leave it be. Don’t try to rush getting to know it, that’s off-putting.

    The next time the word is used, you’ll remember it (and if you’re anything like me, whenever you learn a new word, you’ll suddenly see it everywhere, so it shouldn’t take too long).

    When you’ve seen the word used in a variety of contexts, test the waters and start using it yourself. Never, ever as a substitute for “relationship,” but as its own word which you’ve now built a friendship with.

  3. When you’d like to know more about a word

    If you find a word you don’t know while reading, you’ll probably just brush over it using some context clues. If it really catches your interest, you might look it up in a dictionary (or on Google, let’s be honest). One thing that’s helped me to learn more about a new word is to go one step further and see it in a thesaurus.

    So you find the word “docile” and pause to get the dictionary. You see:

    docile |ˈdäsəl| adjective
    ready to accept control or instruction; submissive

    But without stopping there, you search out a thesaurus. Or simply a website that substitutes one. Your list of words is going to vary wildly, and the more sources you look at, the more you’ll learn about the connotation and associations people might have with the word.

    docile | adjective
    compliant, obedient, pliant, dutiful, submissive, deferential, unassertive, cooperative, amenable, accommodating, biddable, malleable.
    ANTONYMS disobedient, willful.

    docile | adjective
    tame, gentle, meek, well-behaved, agreeable, childlike, resigned
    ANTONYMS wild, unruly

    Remember that none of these words mean exactly “docile.” However, reading through lists of words that are associated with the word you’re learning can help you to get a little glimpse of what else comes to mind when people think of it. This is a great way to pick up on connotation and the tone with which the word works best.

So don’t race to the thesaurus to find a better word whenever you feel insecure about your writing. But, don’t make a bonfire out of your old thesauruses either.

A thesaurus is a tool, neither good nor evil. But it can be very useful.

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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. 

Desire Path: A Symbol

A good friend of mine visited yesterday and mentioned a noun I hadn’t heard used before, though it was an idea with which I was quite familiar. A desire path exists when enough people take a shortcut that their continued footsteps pack down the ground and create a new path over time. It is a path of use rather than of planning.

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I’ve seen many of these in public spaces where sidewalks are poorly placed for efficiency, leading people to cut across the grass. Many trails fit into the idea behind a desire path as well, because enough people followed the same way through the trees and stones that it’s obvious where others have walked before. Even in those trails, though, there are often smaller desire paths that veer the other way around trees, or jut off towards common lookouts and views. 

The concept of a desire path feels symbolic to me. Unlike Robert Frost, I’m not interested in the path less travelled, but the path more travelled. I find it most important where we walk despite the actual trail going in another direction.

We try to create a standard form of a language by establishing “correct” rules, grammar, and definitions, but ultimately the natural flow of common use shapes the path by which our language evolves. The standard language is a sidewalk, and the way we actually use the language is the desire path.

Writers outline and decide what we want our stories to be, but then our characters don’t behave and our thoughts venture in new directions. Themes we didn’t realize needed to be told suddenly show themselves through the new path that arises. I have often ended up with an entirely different story or poem than the one I first set out to tell. 

We carefully lay out plans all the time, but before long we find ourselves straying. Ask a teenager what they want to be when they grow up and then revisit them in five years and ask again. Even the optimist will probably have reshaped their direction in a way that faces less resistance and is more possible to achieve.

Desire paths are not always negative things, in the literal or symbolic sense. They can save us time or lead us to places we might have never seen had we stayed on the trail. They can reassure us that somewhere is safe to walk. We can follow the desire paths of our role models and those who came before us. We can know that although a path we want to take is not the normal, planned, expected trail, it has been travelled before. We can find community in past footsteps. 

 Maybe we do not follow the exact plans of our younger selves, but we are closer to them than if we’d abandoned them entirely. Sometimes leaving the planned path can help us to achieve good when we can’t achieve greatness. We can find new ways to get to the same place. 

As humans, no matter what the initial plans were to guide us, we will go our own direction. We make rules, and we break them. We create governments, and we rebel. We create strict philosophies and moral principles, then bend them when real life proves to be more complicated.

We are like water, flowing wherever gravity takes us, working our way between the stones in the easiest direction. But we can carve great valleys that way.

Desire paths are, in some ways, humanity realizing that it is not always who it thought it was. We tell ourselves that we are virtuous, brave, and pure of heart, with eternal, selfless love to offer. We tell our children to always be thoughtful and kind. We tell stories of wise leaders, strong nurturers, and witty antiheroes. We are endlessly hopeful about who we are and who we can be. We write to give ourselves paths to follow, but we don’t always take those paths when others are more convenient, or safer, or help us in small ways. 

We are imperfect. We have desires. We trample grass. 

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.

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. 
    .
     “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. 

“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.)

“Though”— Perceptions of Powerlessness in Speaking and Writing

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

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

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

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

 

“I hated that movie.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If a young person has enough conversations like this:

 

“What are your views on this?”

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

“Sorry.”

 

Their conversations will start to look more like this:

 

“What are your views on this?”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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