Thursday, November 1, 2012

Formulaic Words

There was a trending hashtag today on Twitter for #NYTBooks. As someone who once wrote something that got published in the NYTimes, I found it especially hilarious.

My suggested title for my essay, "Winnie the Pooh and Baggage, Too," was clearly not right for that publication, but the title it was actually published under, "Fuzzy, Purple and Full of Thorns," didn't seem right for the essay (not that I'm complaining, considering I was ecstatic to have a piece in the newspaper at all.  They could have called it "Not Worth Your Time to Read" and I still wouldn't have complained).

What's so interesting to me about the hashtag and its popularity is that, while the exercise poked fun at the obvious stylistic pattern of the headlines, it was at the same time a nod of appreciation. That the New York Times has a style so recognizable can only be a good thing.  It calls to mind what they say about the media: there's no such thing as bad publicity. Writing style may be the same way.

I'm not suggesting some writing styles aren't subjectively (and even possibly objectively) better than others. I am, however, noticing that authors with a very distinct style tend to be more popular.  Whether you want to praise a writing style or disparage it, you are still talking about it.  It's an idea that these days, for better or for worse, seems to be even more crucial for writers to consider.  I'm not necessarily alluding to a certain book with a neutral color in its title, but if I am, I'm still giving it extra attention, so its author must be doing something right.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Unspecific Words

The age-old question of which is smaller--snack size or fun size--just got...well, just as confusing.

What kind of snake are we talking about here?  I mean, if it's threadsnake-sized, I'll take fun size, any day.  If it's boa constrictor-sized, then I'll take that.  But once we get up to anaconda-sized, I'd have to wonder whether my chocolate might try to eat me instead.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Chinese Words

In taking Chinese lessons, it's become very clear to me that I have a limited range to my voice. In English, what this means is that I am able to say sarcastic things and people have no idea whether I'm serious.  In Chinese, this means I can't pronounce the words correctly.

To properly speak Chinese, you need to clearly distinguish between the different tones (there are 4 distinct ones) in order to convey the word you're trying to say.  If you use the wrong tone, you could be saying something else completely.

This truth is causing me trouble because I don't have a natural rise and fall to my voice.  But it also makes me really curious about sarcasm in Chinese.  Do they have it?  Since the tone of voice is typically what marks it, it would seem that it's impossible to use it in a tonal language.

If that's the case, then people must be so much more sincere.  They must not be able to say, "I'm fine," in a flat tone when they really don't mean it.  They must be more honest with each other.

Then again, there are probably ways to bend the truth in every language.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Reading Words: 1Q84

Haruki Murakami, 2011

I've never read anything by Murakami before, so I don't know if the sprawling, sometimes tedious narrative including minor characters that seem to contribute very little to the plot, repetitiveness indicating a lack of confidence in readers' attention, or fixation on breasts are trademarks of this author's style. I do know that as a writer, a reader, and a lover of parallel universes, these complaints weren't enough to ruin the story for me.  If you're any of the three, I'd suggest you give the book a try.

But what was most interesting to me as I read the book was the ever apparent truth that it was a translation.  Every time I reached a passage that didn't flow properly or a sentence that didn't quite make sense, I questioned whether it was Murakami's writing that made it so or simply a lack of proper English equivalent.  Most fascinating to me was the use of, "I wonder."  Used repeatedly as a kind of substitute (I assume) for "Hmm," or "I don't know," the phrase really grew on me by the end of the 900+ pages. When a character said something another character didn't understand or couldn't answer, he didn't shrug it off with, "I don't know."  He left it open for future discussion with, "I wonder."  I'm sure it's a result of the translator choosing the words closest to the actual Japanese expression, but I found myself asking whether our real life plots might go further if we switched to that phrase in our own conversations.  I wonder.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Surprising Words

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of Amazon opinions, I think you have to be at least a little impressed by a certain small press that abstains from using the retail giant.

I had never heard of Perfect Day Publishing until I read about one of its products, Love is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life, in a Slate article. From the description, I knew immediately I would buy the book.  What I didn't know was that I would get a personalized email letting me know my order would be delayed because they needed to print more books.  I also didn't know I'd get another personalized email explaining how they had to hand-weigh the packages in the shipment so they might have made a mistake on the postage to the tune of -20 cents.  I didn't know when the book arrived, my address would be hand-written, or that I would also receive a stapled copy of A Field Guide to the Aliens of Star Trek: The Next Generation, written by a 7th grader.

All of these unknowns made my experience with the publisher so much richer and more enjoyable.  I mean, I know personalized emails are not hard to create, but the care with which the sender appeared to have put together the mail merge meant something to me.  The constant updates, the free accompanying literature--those meant something, too.  Maybe it's just because it's a novelty these days to get anything other than exactly what you paid for.  Maybe I'm just a sucker for originality.  Whatever the reason, Michael Heald over at Perfect Day is doing something right in my book.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

First Words

My nephew is taking his time learning to speak, so he doesn't say too much yet, though he has his own versions of lots of words--like "help," and "apple," and "birthday," which don't sound anything like the actual words and therefore can only be interpreted by his family.  But for months, he's been saying 2 things very clearly.  He says "up" out loud, and he knows how to say "more" in sign language.

Up and more.  That's all.  It doesn't seem like much, but my nephew has taught me that these words have so many shades of meaning.  You want to be closer to something, or see something?  Up.  You want to keep eating, or you want to see something funny again?  More. You want to gain the perspective of those around you?  Up.  You don't want to leave the people you're with?  More.  You just want to be held?  Up.  You just want to be loved?  More.

Up.  More.  So simple, and yet, so necessary.

He recently added "cheese" to his repertoire.  Also necessary.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Unfinished Words

Last winter/spring/summer, I collected yogurt lids in the hope of getting the right letters to win a beach vacation.  I didn't get them.  But I did end up with tons of lettered lids in my desk drawer at work.  When I left my job, I saved the lids so I could use them for an elaborate art project for my then-boyfriend.  When we broke up, I saved the lids because I couldn't bear to throw out the results of such a sustained effort toward something.  When I moved out of my apartment, I finally got rid of the lids, but first I took this picture because I didn't want the letters to have been a complete waste:

All of those letters scattered on the floor made me realize something: sometimes you have to go through a lot of wrong words before finding the right one.  And also, I ate a lot of yogurt last year.

Friday, March 16, 2012

I Like Words

You always read about people who've taken a creative, bold, and usually seemingly silly approach to getting hired and ultimately reaching their goals, and you think, Well, sure, it worked for this guy/gal, but that's the exception.  I don't really feel like an exception.  (Maybe you don't think exactly that because you don't use the word "gal," but you get the idea.)

But these days, these acts of "nonconformity," if you want to call them that, are actually so abundant that they've almost become the norm.  So why haven't I done something like it yet?  Why haven't I written a letter like this one (that, in 1934, probably was a little more unique)?

I guess it's because I feel like these ploys are gimmicky, and I shouldn't have to stoop so low as to stand out based on my tactic.  I should be successful based purely on my talent. 

Of course, there's the argument that people who come up with these tactics are obviously creative and talented.  And then also the one about who cares how you were discovered, because in the end the important thing is that you were.

Both very good arguments.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Grammatically Incorrect Words

In years past, I may have delighted in today's holiday, smug in the knowledge that even if I sometimes break grammar rules, I almost always know them.  I may have felt a little sad for the future, acknowledging that writing the possessive its with the apostrophe is becoming so common that it may soon become acceptable (I mean, I hope it doesn't, but you never know).

But this year I've decided not to gloat about the fact that I understand when to use "your" and "you're."  I've decided not to write about funny grammatical errors other have made.  Instead, I'm celebrating by remembering that, while fairly important (at least to me), proper grammar isn't everything.

Tomorrow, I will go back to making fun of people who can't distinguish between a comma and a period.  Today, I will just wish you a happy National Grammar Day.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Your Words

Sometimes I wonder if, by immediately discounting anyone who misspells obvious words, I'm missing out on something.  For example, what if this is actually the best apartment in the city?

Then I think, Do I really want to rent from someone who can't even get such a small thing right?

(The answer is no, in case there was any doubt.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Misunderstood Words

On a recent flight, the annoying teenage girl in front of me was looking at the safety information card that can be found in the seat pocket in front of you.  I glanced at it and saw what I thought were special instructions for a "Tall Exit."  At once amused and outraged, I pulled out my own card and looked at it again.  Then I snapped a picture of it, thinking, Wow, so now tall people can't even escape from a plane the normal way?

It wasn't until I put my camera away that I noticed it actually said, "Tail Exit."

That's why I love the written word.  You can read something over and over again and it may not be until the third time that you finally get it.  When it's written down, you have time to mull it over to make sure you're understanding the message, which you don't always have a chance to do with spoken conversations.  That's also why I never liked text messages.  There's still plenty of opportunity for misunderstanding, but the immediacy encourages you not to think about things first.  Then of course you have the results of the miscommunication right there in front of you to read over again.  And again.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Spelling Words

When I was younger (think college), I couldn't spell the word privilege to save my life.  For whatever reason, I just couldn't learn the order of the letters.  I had to look it up every single time.  Finally, one day I decided to learn it, for once and for all, and I did.  It was simple, once I actually tried.

There's an epidemic of the privilege situation going on, and it spans the globe.  Working at a publishing company, I read a lot of proposals and descriptions of books claiming they were indispensable.  But they were actually indispensible.  The first few times I thought nothing of it, because I wasn't sure how to spell that word.  But then when I saw it written the other (right) way, I figured it was just another American/British English spelling difference.  So I looked it up, only to find that -ible doesn't even exist.

Since that revelation, I've come across the word countless times, and there was always a 60/40 split, wrong to right.  So now I'm just stumped.  Is this all a big conspiracy to get me to think I'm spelling the word correctly but really I'm wrong?  Or are entire countries unaware of the word's proper spelling?  Honestly I'm not sure which it is.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Safe Word

For a construction site?  Sure.  For life?  No way.  Safety=safety.  That's it.

I could have remained at my job and been incredibly safe.  Now that I have no job, I'm terrified and unsure and feel anything but safe.  But I still think it was the right decision.  While it definitely could end up being the stupidest thing I've ever done, it could also end up being the best.  Had I stayed, I know for a fact it would not have been the best thing I've ever done.  So for me, risk=possibility.  And that's the most beautiful word I can think of right now.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Inhuman Words

It's finally happened--my worst fear--computers are taking over the world.  How do I know?  They can now decipher CAPTCHA codes.  So now computers are more human-like than I am.  It's only a matter of time before they start doing other things better than I can: cooking, singing, installing air conditioners.  I know, there are probably robots who already do these things, but I don't have time to think about it, okay?  I'm putting all of my energy into resetting my password:

Upside down word--no way to know which order you want.
Cut-off sideways letters, nice one.
It's Greek to me.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Lucrative Words

Next week when I'm officially unemployed, if I go sit by this sign -

- is that technically considered "looking for work"?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sweet Words

I'm not a designer, nor can I think of a situation in my past, present, or near future when I would need to create Lorem Ipsum for anything.  So maybe I should be a bit ashamed to admit that I just spent five minutes generating dessert-related nonsense filler text using Cupcake Ipsum.  But I'm not.  Because Jelly lollipop ice cream cheesecake chocolate.  And Croissant candy canes caramels chocolate bar croissant cookie gummi bears

And also, I discovered a dessert I didn't know existed: faworki.  So it was totally worth my time.

Friday, October 21, 2011

3 Little Words

I quit, yo.

Okay, so maybe I didn't actually use any of those words except the first one in my resignation, but trust me, the sentiment got across.  People keep asking me how I feel, and to be honest, it feels the same.  I should feel terrified (because I don't have another job lined up), excited (because the future is unknown), and relieved (because I've been wanting to do this for a long time).  But so far I just feel like I'm still going to work each day and still have a steady paycheck for the next two-ish weeks.  So, normal.

Deep down, though, where all of my secret thoughts are stored--to only be released when I write, because otherwise the words just don't come--I'm ecstatic.  A part of my heart that's been dead for five years, or at the very least in hibernation, is stirring.  It's about to come alive (or wake up...I really should have stuck to one metaphor) and it is terrifying and exciting and relieving. 

For the next few days, when I think about what I've accomplished, well, I don't even have to think.  I quit, yo.  These three little words are huge.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Apologetic Words

I'm sorry to everyone I've ever offended by making fun of their terrible grammar or spelling.  Why?  Read this.

Did you read it?  Are you done laughing?  Okay, well, although I agree that the letter is hilarious, the outcome of the note--in case you missed it, that would be toilets installed on India's trains--is least to people with tiny bladders.  Anyone?  Anyone else out there?  I can't be the only one.

So again, I'm sorry.  Apparently you can get your point across without a good grasp of how to use words.

Note: This doesn't mean I'm going to stop making fun of people's terrible grammar or spelling.  Only when they're writing about toilets.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Words Have No Meaning

I've been reluctant to write about the Occupy Wall Street Movement (in fear that the one person who accidentally found my blog somehow might discover this post and never come back again).  At first I thought I didn't fully understand it.  Then I received a random email from someone asking me to occupy Times Square, and it still didn't make any sense.  So this weekend, after walking past the group in Zuccotti Park, I said to my boyfriend--who already knows I'm clueless--"This is a dumb question, but what exactly do they want?"

Apparently, it's not clear to anyone.  While the movement's words get thrown around a lot, these people aren't specifically asking for anything.  The closest I could find on the website is that it "aims to expose how the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future."

So it's about exposure.  Well, mission accomplished.  What now?  To me, it seems like the equivalent of standing up in front of the class and shouting, "Ew!  Billy just picked his nose and ate it!"  People are looking.  You have our attention.  So now what do you want us to do?

Maybe I'm ignorant.  Probably I'm ignorant.  But as much as I love words, I realize they're always going to be inanimate if there's no meaning behind them--you know, unless you use cool special effects.  So I guess I'm just waiting to find out what that meaning is.  Or see a really cool laser light show.  Now that's something I would support.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Words of Wisdom

Put on your coat; you're going to catch cold.
--said the fruit stand guy to me, after he finished asking about all of the grocery stores in a two block radius, which included Gristedes, Food Emporium, and the new arrival, Fairway.  It was his first day on the job so he wanted to check out the competition.

I've been briefly enamored by various fruit stand guys in the past (most memorable is the one who asked me where I'd been after I returned from a short absence due to a trip to Ohio), so this is nothing new.  But for some reason it always makes me inordinately happy when everyday, regular people are randomly nice to me.  It's probably because I have a hard time getting outside my own head and whatever random indignity is being replayed inside as proof that the world hates me for long enough to be randomly nice to everyday, regular people until they speak to me first.  One day I'd like to be the fruit stand guy to someone else.  It seems simple enough, but I know--at least for me--the words don't come so easily.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Reading Words: Half Empty

Half Empty
David Rakoff, 2010

Continuing on my nonfiction kick (which I have never, ever been on before, by the way), I started reading this book with the kind of glee only a true pessimist could appreciate.  "Hahaha," I thought to myself--or maybe I said it out loud--"This is going to be good."  And it was.  Rakoff's sardonic attitude toward his life's trials (some silly and some grave, regardless of your attitude) is extremely comforting to people like me, and people with a perpetually rosy outlook on life probably couldn't help finding some of it at least slightly amusing as well.

Unfortunately, I couldn't finish the book because I noticed on Saturday that it was overdue at the library and you can't renew overdue books.  I could have kept it till Monday, but then I would owe 50 cents vs. the 25 I owed already, and I had just paid off my last library debt.  It wasn't the money, you understand, but really just the principle of the thing, so I skimmed the second half and dejectedly parted with the book.

So I'll leave you with my favorite quote from the pages I can still read on Amazon: "Pessimists are born, true, but they can also be made."  Delightful.

Monday, October 10, 2011

It's a Word! It's a Plane! It's...

...strange skywriting!

Watching these words sloooooowly appear yesterday (by the time one was finished, the previous one had almost completely faded away), I was thinking how I could very easily turn them into a metaphor for the writer's career.  You do something that catches people's attention, so they stick around to see what will happen next.  After a while, though, they have a decision to make.  Does your audience remain loyal to you or shrug and decide the payoff can't possibly be worth the agonizing time wasted waiting for something more?  The lucky (and hopefully, in most cases, talented) planes keep their viewers captive regardless of how long they have to wait, and that's because they know that what's coming after will be worth it.  But what about when the words are brand new, in a patch of sky people don't usually look at?  Who stays to see the end?

Anyway, I won't use that metaphor because it's a little too obvious for my taste, but I will say that these words took a very long time to appear and I gave up before the entire message materialized.  Twice.