This helpful device assists with a task I have always found very difficult: crafting a succinct description of a piece I have written. All you need to do is spell your name (or any series of seven alphabetical characters) and you get your ready-made blurb. The result I got from using my actual name, unfortunately, not only didn’t resemble anything I have ever written but didn’t especially tempt me as a reader. Nevertheless, I can see that a good, solid idea for a novel can come out of this exercise. Now someone needs to invent a similar devise for writing it.
In the preceding post, I discussed a word that famously stopped everything else in the news cycle for a few days and then mused about how people manage when they overuse such magical words until they have no further powers left in them. Yesterday, I heard of another word that brings abruptly dire consequences: Literally. No, I mean it. This one word can get you kicked out of a bar in New York (at least until it finally, truly gets demolished soonly). In some ways, this is no surprise, since much has been written about the abuse of this one word (such as in Forbes, The Guardian, and The Boston Globe, to name a few venues). Somehow, however, it escaped Lake Superior University’s Annual List of Words to Banish (We’ll miss you “covfefe”–it was fun while it lasted).
Everyone has their line in the sand. At one point early in my professional life, I had such a special ire for “FYI” that I crossed it out whenever it appeared in front of me. For my husband, it’s any time a server says “Absolutely” or “No Problem.” Under his breath, he’ll mutter “It better NOT be a problem. It’s your job, pal. And ‘Absolutely’…that belongs in some swank bistro where they charge twenty bucks just for saying it. In case you forgot, this here is Pizza Hut!” Or put another way, “Right away, Sir” will do.
When I used to work with GIS, I had a fondness for the term “Groundtruthing”, which refers to the act of physically validating the data on a map. Mapmakers often rely on users in the field to verify the accuracy of a map. My husband, for example, frequents the hiking trails in Maine’s Baxter State Park and the adjacent Katahdin Woods and Waters Monument. When he spots a mistake in the way a trail is represented, he reports it.
Recently, I encountered a different kind of groundtruthing. In Seattle, there is a project called “The Poetic Grid“, which is assembling a map of residents’ experiences as recorded in their poetic observations. Poets of all types and level of experience contribute their work, which is assigned a dot on the map indicating the locale that is the subject of the poem. The next time you are grasping for a poetic subject, this concept of recording a place that is central to your life, in however mundane a manner you choose, may fit the bill.
When I spotted the headline in the local paper today, I did a double-take. I texted my distant spouse with a photo and he first replied, “I know.” And then, before I could write, “You DO?” He replied “Furry??” The paper had taken President Trump’s pronouncement that he would answer North Korea’s aggression with “fire and fury” and blown it up into a blaring headline that announced “Trump warns of ‘Fire and Furry‘”. As one of my co-workers pointed out, spellcheck would not have saved the day on that operation. There is no substitute for good, sound quality control (says the girl who left the “e” off of the word “note” in an email to clients yesterday, thus changing the spirit of the message).
I realize that the unmangled message from the president is very serious in nature but I can’t shake the image of a basket of puppies or kittens being handed out at a diplomatic meeting as an antidote to tense negotiations. Who knows? Maybe it would work.
The comic strip Non Sequitur has again generously provided a juicy writing prompt to get the wheels turning. This one finds two children poking into a bulging sack toted by a mysterious old man. The strip asks, “Who are the kids? Who is the man? What’s in the sack?”
I knew when I read about this masked vigilante who removes superfluous apostrophes from signs, that he should be recognized in a post on this site. The story also contains several hopeful pleas from ordinary civilians regarding other offending signs that have assaulted them (including some that do not involve punctuation errors). I personally wince but turn away from such mistakes on hand-made signs and in emails but take umbrage with professionally made signs and advertising materials that don’t understand how plurals actually work in English. If one pays for a job, one should be able to expect that the job will be done with competence. As for the authors of ‘free puppy’s’, I absolve you.
Trying to keep readers from guessing your dominant gender? You would do well to take a peek at this piece reviewing a book in which 100 classic works, 50 by men and 50 by women, were analyzed for word frequency differences. Three of the words that most suggest yours truly is a woman (freely admitted) appear in the title of this post. The piece also points out that some authors, Vladimir Nabokov in particular, are more apt to mix it up in terms of word choice.
While I have never before reviewed research on this subject, I do have experience with gender evasiveness. When I joined writing.com several years ago (I’m no longer a member), I chose for a screen name the nickname of a masculine character from a book series I had been reading. I was experimenting, testing to see if commentary would run one way or another in response to my posts. With the fiction I posted, I took no special measures, but with the blog I kept, I avoided pronouns (sometimes tortuously) that would give away my gender or that of my spouse (those being the days when the likelihood of my spouse being the opposite gender was extremely strong). I must have had some success at convincing readers I was male because I did receive a comment or two scolding me for what struck the readers as sexist remarks made by a member of that group.
Being scolded by women while I posed as a man was not a novelty. In college I played a male character in a role-playing game, tipping the gender balance of our group, which was comprised of more women than men. Since my character tended to strike a protective pose with the women (more because they were less armored and had fewer weapons than because of any skill deficit), I often got complaints about patronizing behavior. To be fair, the men in the group scolded me for hanging back too much. I once got soundly trounced for choosing not to enter a pub by busting down the door, though I was fully capable of doing so and was apparently expected to exercise my abilities to their fullest at all times. The motto must have been: Why do anything without all your weapons drawn?
The only novel-length piece I have written in first voice was done through the eyes of a male character. I have no doubt that if I re-read that book with an eye to the language, I’d find my hero wandering in the same no-man’s land as my role-playing alter ego. I offer no apology for that, since, judging from the men I know in real life, gender is not a hard and fast determinant of your behavior or language. My own experiments aside, I also don’t believe that one gender is not capable of accessing and describing the experiences of the other. It may be that the 100 works chosen for the survey cited above were more exemplars of place and time (and of who could get published) than of true social rules.
Anyway, it’s exhausting carrying a crossbow everywhere.