“You need to have a look at this,” my mother said. She passed me the Reader’s Digest across my homework on the kitchen table open to the page “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power.”

“Choose one and use it this week, young lady.”

I was more interested in reading “Life in These United States” and the jokes at the bottom of the pages the same way I now flip through the New Yorker scanning the cartoons first.

Still “aberration,” “indelible,” and “mundane” held a satisfying attraction.   I chose “mundane.”  So, I told my gloomy friend Eleanor that it was good we weren’t selected to be pep girls for the seventh grade softball team after all because most of the ones who were chosen were “mundane” as far as I was concerned. “School itself is pretty mundane,” I added. I was on a roll.   But just to cheer her up I told her that Miss Claussen, who we loved, wasn’t that impressed with pep rallies but she was very pleased with Eleanor and me as spellers. We might even get to the city-wide.  And we did.

One of the most absorbing tasks in re-writing is to linger on a word and toy with the options.  No word is ever the last word. When you go back over a draft even if you are tracking the larger issues of structure and story, note where you might want to return and in the margin or even right over the script, put down word choices in a wild circle. Be messy. It’s finger painting at this point anyway. And  because you aren’t necessarily focusing on individual nouns or verbs just yet, you are probably more open to possibility at this early point.

Poets, good ones, can bedazzle with a word or a phrase just like songwriters. They have to because they don’t have the luxury of space and time as do writers of novels or short stories. Every word counts.

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006, that would be 101 years! ) when talking about words in an interview with Bill Moyers said that poetry was hard  “…because in our daily lives we enslave words, use them and abuse them until they are fit for only menial tasks and small errands.”  He continues, “You have to remove the top of your head and plunge into the deep waters of the buried life in order to come up with words that are fresh and shining.”  A good read about creativity is the Bill Moyers collection of conversations with poets titled THE LANGUAGE OF LIFE. These writers talk about their process. Here is where I’d like to state that I am not a poetry maven, but I love the words—the sounds and combinations.  You don’t have to love poetry to like it.

You might want to begin to love Roget’s Thesaurus if you don’t already.   I’m fond of the dictionary, but I’m mad for the thesaurus for it takes me off in a multitude of directions connected in ways with implications and innuendos I might not have suspected.  Peter Roget, born in 1779, graduating  from medical school at the age of nineteen in Edinburgh then making his way to England becoming an expert lecturer on medical subjects, establishing a charity clinic and in 1815 becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society serving as secretary for almost twenty years and, (my personal favorite) was  a founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge, (oh yes,  he also devised a slide rule and “spent much time trying to perfect a calculating machine”)—to think that he would have determined that there was a need for a catalog of words organized by their meanings and idiomatic implications, is thrilling.  I hold his mind in my hand when I turn the pages. He and my mother at the kitchen table were not so far apart .

Words connect. Words express. Words describe and words move.  No matter the century.



How Some Other Things Work: Landing on paper

Four writers began with “It chooses you.”

This exercise is not unique. Most writing classes use a version. It is the one place where being mindless is a good idea. You choose a phrase or a word and begin writing. You only follow the motion of your pencil. You don’t get to re-read, re-write, or stop writing.  In a workshop, there is no comment on the content. It is just what it is, with or without punctuation, grammar, spelling or thought. It’s the safest place you can be. Here are some examples that began with the phrase “it chooses you.”  I did not change anything about them. They happened in about six or seven minutes.

Go try it. Open a book and write down a word or a phrase. Then, go. When you are finished, read it aloud to yourself and then tear it up.  Let it go.  There is always, always more to come.


it chooses you what does life love does this mean i should wait stay indoors under the covers snuggly and uncommited and just let something happen i dont think so but i do believe it chooses you its just that in order to be chosen you have to participate how would i ever play soccer on the hard old tennis courts as a child if i hadnt gone over and got involved and then been chosen for one team or another it can be hard though playing in order to be chosen because we are not always chosen when ready or by the people we want to choose us which kind of once again removes the self from the equation i guess its about finding something at the moment youd forgotten you were looking for it does this mean i need to give up looking or allow myself to be distracted to be lost without a map or compass and just wander should such wanderings be directionless though or have a distinct goal for years goal orientation has driven me on but i am only now beginning to be aware of the journey for this is where you are chosen the trick is to be open to being chosen if you are or rather im too focussed on the goal its easy to miss the clues and signs  of something else choosing you and it just seems so much more exciting not knowing but terrifying too drifting a little perhaps but if you have a heading and keep pushing towards it and allow the wind and teh sea to take you off course as and when they choose too perhpas thats when ill find what my subconscious was/is leading me towards and has been desperately sending signs that this is where i should go ive missed.


It chooses you.  This moment, second, hour of sadness so thick you could spoon it up like pudding.  You can try to fight, push back, justify, tell it to go away, but you know that in the end, you’re not holding the wheel.  And sometimes, as you’re riding the wave of grief, you think, “I just can’t see a single way to get back”.  And so you just ride the current, grateful that you’re not sitting on a piece of what used to be your roof, ten miles out to sea, watching what used to be your life getting farther and farther away, and knowing that even if you do make it back, your wife is gone and your life will never be what it was.  So somewhere in the tide of grief and hopelessness, gratitude comes up and bites you in the ass.  And sometimes you even resent the gratitude.  Fight it. Wrestle it to the ground.  But if you can carve out just a teeny pinprick to let it in, the water calms, the eye of the storm gives you a minute to breathe, get your bearings, speak a word without choking.  And if you get there, then maybe you can help with homework, clean the bathroom sink, drink a glass of water.  And then it passes.


It chooses you. And it has and is now.  What is this ennui? This thickheadedness that has engulfed me since the Japanese earthquake?  It has spilled over to every part of my life-first self-censure that this earthquake – this one has riveted me to the TV- has washed over me like the horrible, horrible images of the tsunami I saw all through the night on Thursday when I first heard of it driving home from my class.  The shock – the Oh My God of it – I’m going to Tokyo and Kyoto in three weeks – this can’t be happening.  Selfishly bringing it as always back to me – to finally achieving one of the dream trips: to Japan.  As I watch and see the horrible shaking but then a helicopter shot of the tsunami picking up houses, cars and Oh My God, people as it relentlessly moves toward a bridge with a few unsuspecting cars driving over it.  I shout, NO!!! to myself alone – as my husband, on the other side of the country safely sleeps not knowing that our trip is gone – that an entire part of a country is gone- that thousands are gone! Gone!!!

It looks like the end of the world and it is in a way.  I shudder at the dire predictions for another one here.  I remember ’94 – how terrified and unsafe every step felt.


It chooses you.  The little idea comes dancing in.  It sizes you up from a distance, trying to see if you will pat attention to it.  If you are too busy with anything electronic it will fly away.  It hates noise and likes the sound of water.  So it will often choose you in the shower or when you are washing dishes or if you are swimming.  Repetitive motion attracts it.  Digging, sweeping, knitting, scrubbing.  But noisy kids in a chaotic car will send it running.

When it chooses you, you must be ready to catch it because it won’t stay long and it won’t come back.  You have to write down what it tells you word for word so you won’t forget.  Because you will forget.  It speaks in a disappearing language and the words and ideas it gives will melt away after awhile leaving you with nothing but a vague memory of what was said.  And no matter how hard you try to conger or woo it back it won’t come.

How Things Work; more about sentences

Do this. Find a sentence or a paragraph you like and then type it. You couldn’t do better than by duplicating good writing with your fingers and eyes and senses. Choose sentences and paragraphs that make you feel something, or see something you wouldn’t normally notice.

Vladimir Nabakov, short story writer and novelist, best known for LOLITA was born in St.Petersburg, Russia in 1899. He came from a moneyed family of minor nobility and they left everything behind to escape the Russian Revolution. He writes about a vanished world in his memoir, SPEAK MEMORY. It is elegant.

I found a passage that took my breath away as much for the structure as for the incident depicted. He describes that often when his family was having luncheon the butler would announce to his father that a group of villagers was there to plead his influence in some local issue. His father would join them outside the dining room windows on the lawn below and though he and his brother could not see or make out what was being said, for the windows were closed to keep out the heat, they knew by the change in tone when the conversation had been concluded. That was when, as a token of gratitude his father would be subjected to the national ordeal of being tossed into the air and securely caught by the satisfied citizens.

This is the passage that bumped my heart:

“From my place at table I would suddenly see through one of the west windows a marvelous case of levitation. There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his wind-rippled summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawling in midair, his limbs in a curiously casual attitude, his handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky. Thrice, to the mighty heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up in this fashion, and the second time he would go higher than the first and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceilings of a church¸ while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin.”

This just made me so happy that the first time I read it I went back and did so several more times just to see what was going on. I wanted to get it into my mouth and under my tongue. It is a complex paragraph made up of elegant and luscious words. A voluptuous example of lengthy sentences and language and memory. I’m not suggesting you analyze what catches your eye, I’m suggesting you experience it.

Here’s one more sentence that I found delicious, by Colette. This sentence is about a table of older women observed eating together:

“They laugh constantly and perhaps for no reason, with that lightheartedness that comes to a woman when the peril of men has at last left her.”

“…the peril of men…” You gotta love that. This leads nicely into the next blog: Words.