Writing: Turning Pain Into Honey

Once, in a New Yorker article, [John Updike had] quoted the German philosopher Theodor Adorno: “In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes.” But the poems he was writing were good. He knew the poems were good.

Before he got sick, Updike had been afraid that he was losing the dizzying talent of his younger prose. A few years before, he’d written to Ian McEwan that while the younger writer had become a star, he had become just an elderly duffer writing irrelevant and boring stories about suburban sex. His tone was light, but he did worry that his style was faltering, that he had lost or was losing his verve, a quickness and lightness of touch. And yet in his new poems, the wily inventiveness, the powers of observation, the sheer gift with words that both his warmest admirers and sharpest critics found astonishing, are all there on display. …

He said, in his thirties, “Being able to write becomes a kind of shield, a way of hiding, a way of too instantly transforming pain into honey.” There is implicit in this description a suspicion of this detached, writerly way of coping, of the sweetness of words, but there is also the sheer miraculous fact: turning pain into honey. …

Updike once wrote quite frankly, in a magazine for retired people, about his fears of losing his extraordinary style. He refers to his “nimbler, younger self” as a rival writer. He celebrates the lost time when he was young, when his material was “fresh and seems urgently worth communicating to readers.” He adds, “No amount of learned skills can substitute for the feeling of having a lot to say, of bringing news.”

And yet, after the shock of his diagnosis, he stumbled again on a startling, fresh subject. The poems he wrote in those weeks, many from the hospital, are not exactly poems as much as dispatches; they snap into focus the blurry experience of the advanced-cancer patient. They carry the urgency of his early work, the sharpness and swiftness he was afraid he had lost: the power of having something pressing he needed to say. …

He did not have time for what Wordsworth called “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Instead, in those arduous last poems, he scrawls through rage, bitterness, bile, jealousy of the living; he works through nostalgia, fond slippage into the past, bewilderment. He writes through magical salvation, resurrection. He imagines himself reading his own death: “Endpoint, I thought, would end a chapter in / a book beyond imagining, that got reset / in crisp exotic type a future I / —a miracle!—could read.” He is writing his way out of death; he is dreaming his way past or through it. …

On New Year’s Eve he wrote to his editor, Judith Jones: “Dear Judith: Maybe the last thing you need from me is another book. But I knew I had enough poems, and the Endpoint theme came crashing home, and so have pushed myself to take this as far as I can.”

Katie Roiphe

Transcribed by me from pages 119, 123–5, 149 of my first edition hardback copy of The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, © 2016, Dial Press.

 

Tweet: Turning personal pain into beautiful writing.
Tweet: “He is writing his way out of death …”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Authors & Other Writers | Tagged as: ,

Personal Archeology: I Remember It Well

Have you ever bought a used book and found something interesting inside? I don’t mean the inscription inside the front cover (another post for another time) … I mean the ephemera. (Merriam Webster: “Paper items [such as posters, broadsides, or tickets] that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles.”) Don’t get too excited—the most interesting thing I’ve ever discovered in a used book was a grocery list. Oh, and that business card from the Buffet Palace (“Oriental Buffet & Water Floating Sushi Bar”) in Austin, Texas.

But the other day I opened a book—The Spire by William Golding—purchased in December 2000 in the gift shop of the Salisbury Cathedral in England, and out fell a postcard. I didn’t remember it until I turned it over: my British girlfriend had written a note and tucked it inside when she presented me with the book later in the day. Ah yes, I remember it well.

And it got me to thinking that my bookshelves are full of little bits and pieces of my personal history. I started pulling books off the shelf at random to have a look. Aside from the obvious (printed promotional bookmarks from the store where it was purchased or, alternately, receipts for purchase of the book), I mostly found old medical receipts, because when I go to the doctor’s office I always take a book. When I leave, the receipt gets stuck inside the cover—I like to keep loose items together—and sometimes never removed.

Here are some other things I found:

  • old used Day-Timer pages
  • a schedule of classes from my freshman year of college
  • a receipt from Carter’s Card Shop (I worked there in high school) dated 22 September 1971
  • a handwritten note dated 8/16/91 from a close friend of mine, thanking me for sharing the book (A Cure for Dreams by Kaye Gibbons) with her
  • in my high school–era copy of The Canterbury Tales, a classroom handout titled “Medieval Misogyny”
  • an unused gift enclosure (a little card) that is permanently stuck to its envelope
  • a stalk of orange flowers I picked in Ireland, carefully pressed
  • several book reviews, ripped from Newsweek or Time or Entertainment Weekly, tucked inside the books to which they referred
  • a list of words and page numbers on which they’re found (I got a blog post out of this one)
  • the pink copy of the Boy’s Application for Tennessee Driver License dated 12-10-99

This last one most truly epitomizes the joy of this sort of personal archeology. It was his sixteenth birthday; I left work early to get home in time to get him to the TDOT office before it closed. He passed. And then he drove us home, where he was surprised to find our living room full of his friends, waiting to celebrate with him. Finding that pink sheet of paper sixteen years later gave me quite a smile.

The things we choose to save—even unintentionally—become artifacts, clues to a life lived—lived well? happily? unhappily? When I talked about this phenomenon on Facebook, my friend Michelle Ule told me about research she was doing on Oswald Chambers at Wheaton College: “When I went through [his] Bible and other books, I found book marks and so on. It was thrilling to think that, like me, they included special mementos in their books.” In fact, many of my book-loving friends had stories about finding things tucked in books. Ephemera by definition, maybe, but not by what the heart feels.

This is such a universal urge—life represented by stuff, ephemera—that even novels have been written about it. The art novel Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (by artist Leanne Shapton) was a fascinating look at that idea, tracing the trajectory of a relationship from first meeting to breakup by looking at their possessions, acquired separately and together. (Here’s an article about it.) In So Many Ways to Begin, author Jon McGregor’s protagonist, a curator in a small museum, tells the story as a series of entries inspired by a memento or relic from his life. Artist (and storyteller) Nick Bantock’s The Museum at Purgatory, which purports to be exactly what it sounds like, is a fantastical work. And then there’s Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist (and Nobel Prize winner) who created an entire museum that represents his novel The Museum of Innocence.

Again, connecting physical objects to a book. In Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading, Jason Merkowski muses that “ebooks are useless” for keeping our personal archeology together. We “lose the feeling of unexpected discovery. Why, for example, was a certain love letter placed inside a specific book?” My feelings exactly.

We sentimental humans manage to amass a lot of stuff. I have scrapbooks, photo albums, high school yearbooks (my own, my mothers, the Boy’s), and, of course, all those books, books, books. Books that no one really cares about but me. What will happen to them when I’m gone? And those scrapbooks? Sometimes I wonder if I should take them all apart and scatter them among the pages of my books. And so live on. :)

Tweet: Personal archeology: ephemera by definition, maybe, but not by what the heart feels.
Tweet: Have you ever bought a used book and found something interesting inside?
Tweet: Ah, yes, I remember it—that moment, that day, that person—well.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Books You Might Like, Miscellany | Tagged as: , , , ,

It’s a Thing

We’ve just been talking about indefinite articles, and here’s another conversation about word use that points out the important choice involved (between definite and indefinite). It’s also about slang, and about how language changes.

Is that a thing? It is.

The word “thing” has of course long played a versatile and generic role in our language, referring both to physical objects and abstract matters. “The thing is …” “Here’s the thing.” “The play’s the thing.” In these examples, “thing” denotes the matter at hand and functions as stage setting to emphasize an important point. One new thing about “a thing,” then, is the typical use of the indefinite article “a” to precede it. We talk about a thing because we are engaged in cataloging. The question is whether something counts as a thing. “A thing” is not just stage setting. Information is conveyed.

Of course, I often use a thing when my once-sharp-but-now-aging vocabulary refuses to deliver the word I’m looking for. I use a definite article, though: “Oh you know, honey, the … the thing!”

If you enjoy thinking about the way words change, the way they expand to encompass new meanings, you’ll enjoy this article.

Tweet: “When did that become a thing?”
Tweet: Calling something “a thing” is itself a thing.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Words & Language | Tagged as: , ,

Humbled By the Story

Flannery O’Connor wrote in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” that most people who write “are more interested in being a writer than in writing. They are interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed, it matters not what.” This, I realized once I’d been kicked in the face with the fact of my being neither here nor there, neither fish nor fowl, neither good enough to be in the M.F.A. program nor bad enough to get kicked out, was who I was: one of the people in the slushpile, wanting only to be heard, to see my name in print. …

[But] that winter I picked up a copy of Raymond Carver’s short-story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

A copy of that book remains on my desk to this day, as I write this. That’s how much of an impact those stories had on me. … [H]e also taught me in a way I had never been taught before.

That winter, I read these stories of his, and saw real people in real circumstances, the author nowhere in sight. This may sound dumb, but before that, once I’d started to write my own stories, I thought a story was about the author’s abilities to put words together, the author’s insight into the human condition, the author’s talent.

I thought a short story was a showcase for the author.

Me: R. Bretley Lott.

But here, here were stories about people in dire circumstances. Real people, starkly rendered, clearly and cleanly rendered, people who were dealing, whether they knew it or ignored it, with matters of life and death.

And nowhere, nowhere could you find the author. There were only these people, and how they would or wouldn’t play the hand they’d been dealt.

In my stories, the author—me—served more as a ringmaster calling attention with a megaphone to the people I was writing about, rather than serving simply, as Carver did, as the conduit through which the story passed.

Scales fell from my eyes.

That winter break, because of this series of events—the reading of hundreds of lousy stories [in my M.F.A. program], the solid and stone-cold rejection of my own by a professor who told me that it remained to be seen whether or not I was worth the space I took up in his classroom, and these crystalline stories—I did two things: first, I stopped sending stories out, ceased seeking publication altogether; and second, I sat down and wrote what I consider my first short story.

It was a story that began in truth, in an incident from my childhood back in Southern California, an incident that involved my older brother, Brad, and me and our babysitter, Charlotte. It began in what really happened, and then departed, took off on its own to arrive at a place I hadn’t imagined it might until I arrived there.

That is, the story told me what it was going to do. I was only along for the ride, merely writing down what I saw happening as it was happening.

I was, finally, humbled by the story.

Bret Lott

Transcribed by me from pages 126–128 of my paperback copy of Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life, © 2005, Ballantine Books.

 

Tweet: “The story told me what it was going to do. I was only along for the ride.”
Tweet: Sadly, most people who write “are more interested in being a writer than in writing.”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Authors & Other Writers, The Writing Craft | Tagged as: ,

It Was Not an Historic Event

I’ve noticed a lot of people of a certain age tend to use the indefinite article an before the word historic (or historical):

The radio announcer said, “It was an historic event.”

This is actually incorrect usage, y’all, though I think I may have been taught this in school, and you may have been too. But if we were … why? We don’t say an history, do we? No.

I began to research it (more about which in a moment), and it became clear to me it has nothing to do with this particular word, or words that begin with h. Instead, it has everything to do with the usage of a and an.

That is, there’s a rule—and it has to do with sound: you use a with words that start with a consonant sound, and you use an with words that start with a vowel sound.

An apple is easy, right?
An elephant.
An igloo.
An orangutan.
An umbrella.

All these words begin with vowels—and more importantly, with vowel sounds.

So far so good.

A boy.
A cat.
A dog.
A house—and also a historic occasion.
A zebra.

These words begin with consonants—and consonant sounds.

But there are some words that begin with consonants that sound like vowels, and these would require an:

An hour, an heir.
An honor to be here.

See? So following this rule, there are also words that begin with vowels but sound like consonants, such as …

A one-trick pony.
A uniform.

Sounds like—it’s a very simple rule. Yet … an historic still persists. I edit it out of OPW (Other People’s Writing) all the time. You can find retired professors and other old farts on the Internet trying to tell you it’s still a rule. But it’s not. It’s incorrect. Once upon a time it was correct—the best I can determine, it was and perhaps still is British usage and was taught to American children at least until the middle of the last century—and it had to do with which syllable in a word got the accent. HIS-tory as opposed to hi-STOR-ic. Oh, it’s ’way too complicated to go into, kids, so let’s don’t and say we did.

But you know about grammar rules. They change over time, and there’s nothing you can do about it. (I love this guy’s rant about that.)

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about indefinite articles for abbreviations. These go on sound, too—a for consonants, an for vowels—but be sure to pay attention to abbreviations that have become acronyms to get it right. Here are some examples.

An MBA.
A PhD.
An FAQ page.
A CD.
An SAT test.
A jpeg.
An html shortcut.
A BBC program.
An NCAA game.
A NATO exercise.
An ATM machine.
A PIN number.
An SSN number.
A HUD directive.
An HIV drug.
A K9 cop.
An MD.

Bottom line—no more an historic. All the style guides agree with me on this—Chicago, Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, and on and on. At best, an historic makes you sound old and at worst it makes you sound pompous and pedantic and pretentious. And you don’t want that, do you?

Tweet: Sounds like—it’s a very simple rule. Yet an historic still persists.
Tweet: Bottom line—no more an historic. All the style guides agree with me on this.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Words & Language, Your Editor Says … | Tagged as: , , ,

Short Saturday: Jane Friedman’s Key Book Publishing Paths

I can’t keep up with all the trends and opinions in the publishing industry. I just don’t have time for it. I’m interested in these things, though—so there are a few people I follow to get an overview.

Jane Friedman is one of them. She’s more a fan of digital publishing than I am, but that’s OK. She knows what she’s talking about, and you should feel comfortable taking her advice.

Three years ago Friedman published an infographic—Key Book Publishing Paths—and she updates it annually (this week, as it turns out). It answers one simple question:

Should I traditionally publish or self-publish?

            Friedman notes:

There is no one path or service that’s right for everyone; you must understand and study the changing landscape and make a choice based on long-term career goals, as well as the unique qualities of your work.

This article will help you know what that changing landscape looks like right now. Read it.

Tweet: Friedman knows what she’s talking about, & you can feel comfortable taking her advice.
Tweet: This article answers one simple question—the one all of you ask.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as: ,

Wordplay: Neglected Positives, Inpeas, and Falsies

Prefixes like “in,” “non,” “un,” “dis,” and “im” make words negative, yes? There may be grammatical particulars I am not addressing here, but generally speaking. So you have a positive word like “restrained,” and you add the prefix “un” to get a negative: unrestrained.

Possible. Impossible.

Sane. Insane.

When there’s a negative word or expression—immaculate, for example—but the positive is almost never used, and you choose to use it, you become rather amusing. Or pretentious. Or pretentiously amusing, which can sometimes be good. In any case, you are uncovering a buried word. The neglected positive of immaculate is maculate, meaning morally blemished or stained. The neglected positive of insufferable is sufferable—meaning bearable—though no one ever uses it.

Other times, the neglected positive is not a word. It is then an imaginary neglected positive, or INP (inpea).

(Frankie made up everything that follows after the stuff about maculate and sufferable, just in case you thought of impressing your English teacher with your knowledge of the inpea.)

Some inpeas: Impetuous means hotheaded, unthinking, impulsive. The positive of it doesn’t exist, so you can make a new, illegitimate word.

Petuous, meaning careful.

Ept, meaning competent, from inept.

Turbed, meaning relaxed and comfortable, from disturbed.

You can make more inpeas by pretending that something is a negative when it’s not a negative—because, you justify, it has one of those prefixy-sounding things at the beginning.

Impugn—it means to call into question, to attack with words. It comes from Latin in- (against) plus pugnare (to fight). Pugn by itself—although there is no such word—should technically mean to fight, like to fistfight. But to the ardent neglected positivist, to pugn would be to speak well of something.

Yet another technique of the neglected positivist is to impose a new meaning on a word that exists but, through the convolutions of grammar, doesn’t technically mean what you are deciding it means. The neglected positive of incriminate is criminate, which actually, technically means the same thing as incriminate—because the in- isn’t really making a negative in this case—but it is much more amusing if you use it to mean the opposite. Criminate: to give someone an alibi.

When you redefine a word like this, you are making a false neglected positive, as opposed to an imaginary neglected positive, and it can be useful to term these falsies FNPs or finnips. But falsie is more entertaining, so Frankie went with that. Later, when she thought all this through.

E. Lockhart

Transcribed by me from pages 110–112 of my hardback copy of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (a novel), © 2008, Hyperion Books.

 

Tweet: When you use a neglected positive, you are uncovering a buried word.
Tweet: Wordplay isn’t pretentious—it’s fun.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Books You Might Like, Words & Language | Tagged as: , , ,

Mozart and the Nature of Creativity

When I was in my early thirties, I had a love affair with Mozart. (It continues to this day, actually. How could it not?) I was the daughter of a classically trained pianist, had taken twelve years of classical piano lessons myself, and already had a very serious thing for Beethoven rockin’ on. You may wonder where I am going with this, but hang on.

Flash forward to now. I read Austin Kleon’s weekly newsletter, one item on which was “Things I didn’t know about Mozart.” Click.

Huh, I thought. I bet I know every thing on his list—Kleon’s a listmaker—and I did, all of them, friends, because when I was deep in my affair with Wolfy, I read several serious Mozart biographies (and then some).* Crazy, really, but I was younger then and had more time to read than I do now, to follow my interests wherever they led. And then to wallow in them.

I confess I scratched my head, though, about a few of Kleon’s entries, things that made me think, Ummm … really? But he made the remark that he picked up this particular biography because it was short, just 150 pages. And I get that, but when I read a review of the book, I learned …

Even when [the author] advances a compelling argument, however, he never substantiates it by citing specific sources; time and again, we are simply expected to take him at his word. “It seems to me,” “I think,” “I believe,” “I suspect,” “so far as I can judge”—these phrases pepper far too many of his assertions.

I would say to you, then, when you decide to invest your precious time in a biography, choose a trusted, respected author (not, for example, Bill O’Reilly), someone who will lead you to primary sources and make interesting interpretations that fit with known history. It will be worth it, even if the book is a bit long.

That said, I did enjoy briefly reviewing Mozart’s life—and this one gave me an a-ha moment:

Mozart loved billiards and would often compose while playing (“Mozart had bundles of music paper in his pocket when he entered a public billiards room and composed while waiting his turn. He calculated a long break as twenty or thirty bars.”)

Do you see what I see? Mozart was incubating.

I recognized that billiard playing immediately: it’s the incubation period as outlined by Graham Wallas (we’ve talked about this most specifically here, but also here and here). In fact, something I found interesting in my Mozart reading was a description of his process. He generally had three works in progress:

  1. The piece he’d already mentally worked out and drafted, with which he was finished and satisfied, and was transcribing. He was always behind on transcription.
  2. The piece he’d been sketching, and was now engaged in actual composition, which occurred in front of a keyboard; it resulted in a draft that he’d probably incubate some more.
  3. The new piece, the ideas, the creative inspiration that he was thinking about and perhaps sketching out in short notes to himself.

Well. This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s what I suggest to writer friends who are stuck or not feelin’ it—set it aside, think about something else, work on something mindless like transcription. I was just telling an author this morning that the nature of creativity is such that inspiration comes and goes; sometimes we just have to sit with it. Or go play billiards.

There’s more food for thought in Mozart’s story. He was born in a time when composers (even those who were geniuses) made their livings in service to the wealthy and the royal, who maintained orchestras and planned events that required special music. The social order has changed over decades and centuries—musicians and other artists, like writers, are free to self-promote—but even now it helps to have a “patron” if you’re pursuing a career in the arts. A publisher. A spouse.

Next time you’re feeling stagnant, then, consider Wolfgang. Let your family and friends encourage you. Find work that will allow you to practice your craft and will pay the bills until your audience finds you. And get out of the house and play. :)

* No, really (partial list):
1791: Mozart’s Last Year (HC Robbins Landon)
Amadeus: A Mozart Mosaic (Herbert Kupferberg)
Mozart (Wolfgang Hildesheimer)
Mozart (Hugh Ottaway)
Mozart: His Character, His Work (Alfred Einstein)
Mozart in Vienna 1781–1791 (Volkmar Braunbehrens)

 

Tweet: Do you see what I see? Mozart was incubating.
Tweet: Inspiration comes & goes; sometimes we just have to sit with it. Or go play billiards.
Tweet: Next time you’re feeling stagnant, then, consider Wolfgang.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Creativity | Tagged as: , ,

Short Saturday: A Considered Discussion of Traditional Versus Self

You know what I mean.

A friend of mine—a professor of English lit at a local university who is just weeks away from having her first book (traditionally published nonfiction) in her hand—recently asked me about traditional publishing as opposed self-publishing. It seems even in academia, the “publish or perish” expectation is pushing some authors toward self-publishing.

It’s a tough question, still, and will continue to be. Publishing expert and thought leader Mike Shatzkin had an interesting post this week on this very subject—and what Hugh Howey, an influencer for and successful self-published author has to say about it.

Shatzkin says,

Howey and I have had numerous private conversations over the years. He’s intelligent and sincere in his beliefs and truly devotes his energy to “industry education” motivated by his desire to help other authors. Yet there are holes in his analysis of the industry and where it is going that he doesn’t fill. Given his substantial following and obvious comfort level doing the marketing (such as it is, and it appears Howey’s success as an author hasn’t required much) for his own books as well as his commercial performance, it is easy to understand why he would never consider publishing any other way but as he has, as an indie author who is “all in” with Amazon. But he seems to think what worked well for him would work best for anybody. … It is impossible to quarrel with the fact of Howey’s success. But he makes a big mistake assuming that what worked effectively for him makes self-publishing the right path for anybody else, let alone everybody else.

Then he goes on to give a very thoughtful analysis of Howey’s points, and the publishing industry in general. Interestingly, Howey is a novelist. Yet Shatzkin’s title is “In an indie-dominant world, what happens to the high-cost non-fiction?”

Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, or whether you’re simply a reader of either, you should have a look at this article.

Tweet: Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, or whether you’re simply a reader—read this.
Tweet: Traditional or self? Everyone has to decide for himself.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as: , , ,

Compulsive Proofreaders Unite!

During a recent visit to the Florida island where our parents live, my brother and I had dinner with them at a fancy restaurant. As we bent our heads over our menus—all of us, that is, except my father, who can’t see—I realized that our identically rapt expressions had nothing to do with deciding what we wanted to eat.

“They’ve transposed the e and the i in Madeira sauce,” commented my brother.

“They’ve made Bel Paese into one word,” I said, “and it’s lowercase.”

“At least they spell better than the place where we had dinner last Tuesday,” said my mother. “They serve P-E-A-K-I-N-G duck.”

We stared at one another. You’d think that after all these decades, we Fadimans would have mapped every corner of our deviant tribal identity, but apparently there was one pan-familial gene we had never before diagnosed: we were all compulsive proofreaders.

Our confessions tumbled onto the tablecloth like so much spilled Madeira sauce. My brother revealed that in a 364-page computer software manual he had consulted the previous month, he had found several hundred errors in spelling, grammar, and syntax. His favorite was the oft-repeated command to “insert a carrot.” He had written the company, offering to trade a complete list of corrections for an upgraded version of the software, but had not received a reply. …

Our mother confided that for several years she had been filling a large envelope with mistakes she had clipped from her local paper, the Fort Myers News-Press ….

My father, who at age twenty-four had been a proofreader—indeed, the entire proofreading department—at Simon & Schuster, admitted that in the full flush of his youthful vanity he had routinely corrected menus at posh Manhattan restaurants and handed them to the maître d’s on his way out. He’d even corrected library books, embellishing their margins with [corrections], which he viewed not as defacements but as “improvements.” …

I know what you may be thinking: What an obnoxious family! What a bunch of captious, carping, pettifogging little busybodies! It is true—and I realize this is damning evidence—that once, when I ordered a chocolate cake to commemorate the closely proximate birthdays of my three co-Fadimans, I grabbed the order form from the bakery clerk, who had noted that it was to say “HAPPY BIRTHDAY’S,” and corrected it. …

Of course, if you are a compulsive proofreader yourself—and if you are, you know it, since for the afflicted it is a reflex no more avoidable than a sneeze—you are thinking something quite different: What a fine, public-spirited family are the Fadimans! How generous, in these slipshod times, to share their perspicacity with the unenlightened!

Anne Fadiman in “Insert a Carrot”

Transcribed by me from pages 79–80, 82, of my personal hardcover copy of Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, © 1998, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

 

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Tweet: If you are a compulsive proofreader, you know it is a reflex no more avoidable than a sneeze.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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