Have All the Stories Been Written?

Romeo and JulietSeveral months ago, I felt inspired to collect ideas for short stories. (This step, which precedes the actual writing, is wonderful, because it isn’t the actual writing.) I tried to find scenarios that would convey concepts I found interesting. For example, I wanted to write about oneness—specifically, how the notion of oneness is difficult to comprehend because we appear to be in individual bodies.

I thought maybe I could illustrate this idea via conjoined twins. Identical twins who are physically joined seem less separate than the rest of us; there is no space between them to suggest disconnection. Indeed, to get along in life, conjoined twins must cooperate; discord would lead to suffering. Mark Twain’s 1869 comic sketch of Chang and Eng Bunker, the famous Thai-American conjoined brothers, humorously illustrates the nature of inseparability:

By an understanding between themselves, Chang does all the in-door work and Eng runs all the errands. This is because Eng likes to go out; Chang’s habits are sedentary. However, Chang always goes along. . . . Upon one occasion the brothers fell out about something, and Chang knocked Eng down, and then tripped and fell on him, whereupon both clinched and began to beat and gouge each other without mercy. The bystanders interfered and tried to separate them, but they could not do it, and so allowed them to fight it out. In the end both were disabled, and were carried to the hospital on one and the same shutter.

Twain may have used the Bunker brothers as a metaphor for national unity.

Around the time I was researching conjoined twins, I became aware of a writing competition calling for short stories in the categories of romance, thriller, crime, horror, science fiction, and young adult. I reasoned that the goal of entering this contest might inspire me to do the (dreaded) actual writing. I chose horror to convey my tale about conjoined twins, although any of the genres might have provided a compelling framework. I fleshed out the plot and characters.

AHSThen the fourth season of the popular TV series American Horror Story premiered, depicting a freak show in Jupiter, Florida, in 1952. Among the characters was a pair of conjoined twins, Bette and Dot Tattler. I found numerous similarities to my prospective horror story about conjoined twins! I surmised that the show’s writers had referred to at least some of the same online sources that I did. Another parallel emerged in the second episode. The freak show’s bearded lady and strong man were portrayed as exes who had a child together. A number of years ago, I wrote a short story (in response to a Writer’s Digest prompt) about a bearded lady and a strong man who get married, and she becomes pregnant!

These coincidences got me wondering if it was possible to write a truly original story. I remembered how shocked I was to read in The Riverside Shakespeare, as a college student, that the Bard had based Romeo and Juliet very directly on earlier material—namely, a novel published by an Italian writer circa 1530 (approximately 65 years before Will wrote R&J) that included the story of “two noble lovers”:

Luigi da Porto lays the scene in Verona and names the feuding families the Montecchi and the Cappellati. . . . His Romeo goes to a Cappellati ball to see a girl whom he loves but who scorns him, and falls in love with Giulietta, as she with him. After a longer courtship than Shakespeare allows, conducted mostly on the girl’s balcony, they marry, with the aid of the Franciscan Lorenzo, who hopes that the families will thus be brought together; but Fortune, “enemy of every earthly joy,” prevents this outcome by starting up the feud again. The rest of the story is substantially as in Shakespeare.

Da Porto had been inspired by a 1476 writing by Italian poet Masuccio of Salerno.

So, what is the point of writing stories with the same subject matter, over and over? Perhaps the meaning of a story is more important than the details—and we are willing to accept the same content in slightly different forms. The essential content of most stories is the resolution of a problem. This resolution is not necessarily a happy one, but a natural outcome of how the problem is approached. For instance, I have thought of Shakespeare’s Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as having the same central issue but different outcomes. In the former, Desdemona must defy her father to be with Othello; in the latter, Hermia must defy her father to be with Lysander. The first couple dies; the second couple marries without objection. Both death and marriage are resolutions.

And because our lives are a series of problems, the resolutions found in stories provide catharsis.

Statistics for Word Nerds

word stats

As an editor, I consult online dictionaries on a daily—sometimes hourly or momentary—basis. Occasionally, I need to learn the meaning of a word with which I am unfamiliar. More often, my goal is to confirm a term’s style—whether it’s one word, two words, hyphenated, capitalized, etc. For a conservative opinion, I go to Merriam-Webster. For the prevailing usage of a contemporary word or phrase, I visit Dictionary.com. If I can’t find a ruling in either place, I search for a New York Times article containing the term, and mimic its treatment there. Now you know my word-referencing secrets. (Be grateful I spared you my Web-thesauri strategies.)

As if looking up words in dictionaries weren’t exciting enough, these online resources now offer amusing lexical statistics. Last month, Dictionary.com introduced its “difficulty index,” which ranks words based on their complexity and frequency of use. Here are the various categories, with examples of each:

  • All English speakers likely know this word (book, dog, house)
  • Most English speakers likely know this word (aluminum, butterfly, secretary)
  • Many English speakers likely know this word (chlorophyll, encyclopedia, pancreas)
  • Some English speakers likely know this word (begonia, marjoram, paranormal)
  • Few English speakers likely know this word (glockenspiel, kerflop, macrobiotic)

I have spent an embarrassing amount of time looking up words and trying to guess their difficulty levels. I suspect the algorithm may be flawed, however, because cupcake comes up as a term that few English speakers are likely to know (yet I’m pretty sure it was my first word). Further, I think the classifications could be a little more practical:

  • Using this word will make you sound snobbish.
  • This word is not acceptable in Words With Friends.
  • Microsoft Word puts an annoying red squiggle under this word.
  • Do not attempt to use this abstruse word in a sentence. (This category would include the word abstruse.)
  • Only James Woods knows the meaning of this word. (The Academy Award–nominated actor has an IQ of 180!)

factoidAnother entertaining (and addicting) dictionary tool is Merriam-Webster’s popularity meter, which indicates how frequently a word has been looked up in the last seven days, compared with other words, and whether it is on an upward trend. For example, at the moment of this writing, factoid is in the top 1 percent of lookups, is the site’s most popular word, and is a “fast mover”—that is, it has increased significantly in lookups over the past week. (The foregoing brief and unimportant piece of information is an example of a factoid.)

Last week, when I checked Merriam-Webster’s list of most popular words, I found a very peculiar item at the top: chin music. I understood why people would need to look up this rather obscure term (according to Dictionary.com, few English speakers are likely to know it), but why were they searching for it now? The only potential reason I could discover was a recent sports article with the phrase in its title. (In baseball, “chin music” refers to a high inside pitch meant to intimidate the batter. It’s also slang for idle talk.)

Merriam-Webster lists the most popular words for three recent periods: 24 hours, seven days, and four months. The following words appear in the top 25 in all three categories, demonstrating continued popularity: bigot, comradery, empathy, holistic, insidious, integrity, pedantic (the most popular word in the last 120 days), and pragmatic. I’m not sure what to make of this collection of terms, but it strikes me as reflective of the duality of the human experience: empathy, comradery, and integrity versus bigotry and insidiousness.

I hope this post hasn’t been overly pedantic.

Taking Leave of the Senses

Perfect Sense

A few weeks ago, I made an observation about a movie I was watching. Then I made the rash decision to turn that little act of noticing into an entire blog post—and I really don’t know if it is going to work. The movie was Perfect Sense, a 2011 apocalyptic romance (pandemic love story?) starring Eva Green and Ewan McGregor. I gave it five cupcakes out of five, although I suspect it’s the kind of film that people will find either pretentious or earnest, empty or meaningful, based on their personal outlook. (IMDB rates it 7.1.)

spoiler alertI will be giving away the ending of Perfect Sense here, but I recommend seeing it anyway. It’s quite affecting. Plus, it contains “good” nudity, as my husband would say, as well as the occasional expletive to keep things colorful.

Set in Glasgow, Perfect Sense centers on Susan and Michael. She is an epidemiologist, he a chef. Their occupations are a plot convenience, as the film is about a globe-trotting disease (“Somebody call an epidemiologist!”) that affects the senses (all of which enter into the acts of cooking and eating). Susan lives across the street from the upscale restaurant where Michael works, and they meet just in time to become consorts on the front lines of both infectious disease research and sensory stimulation. I didn’t mind this contrivance because it worked, I probably would have written it the same way, and the actors are ridiculously attractive (even in surgical masks).

The affliction, which is not obviously contagious and has no identifiable source, takes away the senses one by one, starting with smell. The loss of each sense is preceded by an outburst of emotion: smell by grief, taste by terror, hearing by rage, and sight by love. The entire world goes through the stages of the disease roughly simultaneously, causing periods of pandemonium and civil unrest. Between losses, however, society adjusts to the new normal. For example, after the sense of smell is gone, “The food becomes spicier, saltier, more sweet, more sour. You get used to it.”

The last sense to disappear in the movie is sight. “Fade to black” in a screenplay was never meant so literally! We do not witness the loss of touch. The audience is left to imagine what deprivation of that fifth and final sense would be like: People are no longer able to perceive the world or communicate with each other in any way. They cannot feel, see, hear, taste, or smell anything. This disturbing prospect led to my aforementioned observation, spelled out here: “No wonder we find it so hard to believe that we are not a body!”

“Whoa!” you might be thinking. “Who said anything about not being a body?” Some of the manuscripts I edit are in the mind-body-spirit category; I also read books and listen to podcasts in this area. In these materials, I have come across three basic options for the essential nature of who we are:

  1. We are a body.
  2. We are a body and we are spirit.
  3. We are spirit.

One of these theories may sound most plausible to you (and it’s probably one of the first two). Materialists, who maintain that the fundamental substance of nature is matter, would likely say that we are a body only. I have heard many New Age/spirituality authors, on the other hand, posit that we are spiritual beings having physical experiences (or something along those lines). Finally, one text I have encountered goes so far as to say that we are spirit only, and that the body and the rest of the physical world are illusions.

five sensesOur identity is wrapped up in the body, in large part due to the sensory input we receive. Even if we begin to think of ourselves as incorporeal—as momentarily separate from the body—a sensation (stubbed toe, loud noise, the smell of baked goods) will bring us right back into the physical. In other words, on an intellectual level, accepting that we may not be a body is doable. But when something happens that impacts the body in a major or even minor way (we receive a cancer diagnosis, come down with a cold, have a deep-tissue massage), conceiving of the body as illusory seems absurd.

The spiritual text mentioned earlier concurs regarding the body: “It is almost impossible to deny its existence in this world.” It follows up, “Yet if you are spirit, then the body must be meaningless to your reality.” A famous teacher of this work observed, “That is why [this text] is such a threat: it teaches the nonexistence of our very self.” I am reminded of a stand-up joke told by Woody Allen, about how his wife would engage him in philosophical discussions and prove he didn’t exist—which infuriated him.

If we were to lose our bodily senses, as in Perfect Sense, we would no longer be aware of our body, other bodies, and the rest of the physical world—everything that appears to constitute reality. This idea is inherently frightening. In fact, on the movie’s IMDB message board, viewers have used the following words to describe its ending: “Terrifying.” “Maddening.” “Devastating.” “Depressing.” “This movie left me curled up in a fetal position bawling my eyes out.”

Within the context of a curriculum for spiritual transformation, denying the information provided by our senses is similarly distressing. It requires a huge leap of faith—a rejection of all that seems most real. But how many of us would attempt the shift from body-identification to spirit-identification, if doing so resulted in healing and lasting peace?

I Don’t Really Like Talking about My Flair

suspenders

This post is dedicated to anyone who has asked me about my job and received a perfunctory answer.

(I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize to anyone who has inquired politely about my hobby, only to have me babble on about coconut flour, baking times, and buttercream, while gesticulating wildly and searching my phone for cupcake photos.)

In the cult classic Office Space [interject your favorite quote here], Jennifer Aniston’s character, Joanna, works at a T.G.I. Friday’s–inspired restaurant called Chotchkie’s, where the servers are required to wear 15 “pieces of flair” (buttons). Joanna dons the bare minimum, to the disappointment of her boss. He compares her unfavorably to her overly eager coworker Brian, who wears 37 pieces. When Peter, the movie’s protagonist, questions Joanna about her buttons, she replies, “I don’t even know what they say. I don’t really care. I don’t really like talking about my flair.”

When people ask me what I do for a living, I tend to shut down the conversation in a similar way. Gritting my teeth, I mutter, “I’m a writer and editor.” In response to the follow-up question about the kinds of materials I work on, I sputter, “Anything that needs to be written or edited.” (It’s a good thing the work seems to flow in, because can you imagine how successful I’d be in a job interview?) Why am I reluctant to talk about what I do? Am I afraid I’ll bore people? Is it hard to explain what I do? Do I not know what I do?

Since going freelance 10 years ago, I have worked on a range of published things, including textbooks, nonfiction books, novels, and Web sites. My regular tasks include writing, rewriting, researching, developmental editing, copyediting, fact-checking, proofreading, and production proofing. While major institutions offer courses and certification programs for those seeking employment in editing, I continue to learn through observation and experience. (Besides, according to my first boss almost 25 years ago, publishing is the “accidental profession.”) I can’t say much more along these lines, for fear of becoming tiresome to myself. (That’s what LinkedIn is for, right?) But I do want to talk a little about how I approach my projects.

My efforts start with trying to see beyond the material to its perfection. Then I attempt to bring the words I am writing or editing as close as possible to the ideas they represent. The disheartening news is that because each word is a choice, and perfection would require all correct choices, perfection appears to be mathematically improbable. Still, I want the final product to reflect very nearly exactly what the author (or I) was trying to say, in its most eloquent form. Ultimately, however, I am the reader’s advocate. With every sentence, I ask myself, will the reader understand, benefit, and be engaged? Authors want to reach people, and I am responsible for facilitating that.

As a final note, if you can’t stand when people drone on and on about their jobs, I am the perfect dinner companion.

Judge for Yourself

sign

I was talking to someone on the phone a few weeks ago, and something in our conversation prompted her to say, “I notice that you tend not to judge people. But it’s okay to judge. In fact, it’s necessary.” I’m pleased that I come across as nonjudgmental. But this impression is not exactly accurate. I judge. Then I try to catch myself, and stop. This takes conscious, daily (hourly, momentary) effort.

Judging others seems intrinsic to human nature. Why do we do it? Here are some ideas:

  1. Judging others lets us know where we stand. It helps us establish our position in the world, as better than some but not as good as others: “I am better than a murderer, but not as good as a humanitarian.” “I am better than an embezzler, but not as good as a spiritual master.” “I am better than someone who defaces public property, but not as good as someone who volunteers for disaster relief.”
  2. Judging others confirms that we are good. Thinking “that person is bad” implies that we are good, because we are able to recognize the evil in another.
  3. Judging others makes us feel stronger and safer. Judgment is attack, as evidenced in the hostile and aggressive way we condemn others for what we view as their trespasses. We attack because we are afraid, and the goal of attack is to hurt or destroy. Therefore, to judge is to attack what frightens us, with the intent to hurt or destroy it. Striking a blow, through judgment, protects us from a perceived threat.
  4. Judging others is a personal right. It is our prerogative, which we exercise to the extent that we individually feel entitled: “I have the right to judge people for their religious beliefs but not their political views.” “I have the right to judge people for their sexual orientation but not their physical appearance.” “I have the right to judge people for committing violent crimes but not for failing to pay their taxes.” I think we all claim the right to judge others who hurt us or who hurt our loved ones.
  5. Judging others is a personal responsibility. We need to let others know, if only with our thoughts, that they have crossed a line with their words or actions. We are enforcing a moral code.

On the surface, these reasons for judging others may seem befitting for existence on this planet. But I think they raise some questions:

  1. Are there really levels of human beings? Is one person more (or less) valuable than another?
  2. Are we truly sinless, while others are sinful?
  3. Does judging actually make us stronger and safer? Or does it teach us we are weak and vulnerable, because we feel the need to defend ourselves?
  4. Would we be willing to give up the right to judge, if it meant freedom from being judged ourselves?
  5. Is it really our job to point out where others do not conform to our standards or to the standards of society?

We judge others automatically, with no exceptions: the terrorist on the morning news, the slow person in front of us at the coffee shop, the colleague who throws us under the bus, our spouse for loading the dishwasher differently than we would. In my own experience, judging others provides an immediate, self-righteous high—which sours quickly. Once I sense the oppressiveness of my moralistic intolerance, I let go of the judgment—and feel instant relief. Many times a day, I come to the realization that judging others does not make me feel better about myself or my life.

Nonjudgmental people may be perceived as naïve or wishy-washy. But being nonjudgmental actually comes from a place of knowing and certainty about who and what we are:

  1. We are one. The metaphysically minded might say that we are one in spirit. At least most would agree, I think, that we are one in purpose—as cohabitants of the earth, striving for contentedness. Many would also probably subscribe to a unifying idea like the brotherhood of man. So, when we judge, when we single out a brother to accuse him of an offense, we are attacking the whole—including ourselves. That’s why judging others feels as toxic as being judged—we are pointing in a mirror. But by withholding judgment, we are saying, “I would not accuse myself of this.”
  2. We are innocent. Numerous thought systems and spiritual teachers instruct that our true nature is divine—that, in reality, we are perfect, whole, and innocent. This idea can be difficult to accept, in light of the sinful things we seem to do—of which we are guilty in the framework of the world. But if we go beyond the physical, to our essence, we are all sinless. In this condition, where sin does not exist, judgment has no function.

A popular caution against judging others is, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” I hope that we can also say, “Let’s drop our stones, because we are equally innocent.”

 

The Elusive En Dash

stadion

For several weeks, I have been wanting to dash off a post on this topic. So, what is an en dash?

a. a punctuation mark similar to a hyphen but the length of a lowercase n

b. a sprinting event in the ancient Olympic Games that was run from one end of the stadium to the other

c. a small quantity of a substance thrown into or mixed with something else, equivalent to approximately one thirty-second of a teaspoon

The Greek race was the “stadion,” and one thirty-second of a teaspoon is a “smidgen,” so an en dash must be that punctuation thing. (Sorry to dash your hopes that this post might have been about athletics or cooking.) I’m convinced that outside the worlds of publishing and printing, people have never heard of the en dash (highlighting a glaring gap in the Schoolhouse Rock library). And even then, it’s iffy: I have encountered professional editors who overlook en dashes.

At this point, I’m sure you’re dying to know exactly what the en dash does, but for context, I first want to distinguish it from its more crowd-pleasing cousins, the hyphen and the em dash. The hyphen has various functions, such as in compound adjectives (“dog-eat-dog world”), as a separator (“867-5309”), and for end-of-line word breaks. You may not know the em dash by name, but it’s the long, elegant line (technically, the length of an uppercase M) that sets off a parenthetical thought—such as this one.

The bible (a.k.a. The Chicago Manual of Style) says the following about hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes: “Though many readers may not notice the difference—especially dashesbetween an en dash and a hyphen—correct use of the different types is a sign of editorial precision and care.” I interpret this to mean that the proper utilization of these punctuation marks is essential to the maintenance of a civilized society.

The en dash is used to connect numbers and words, implying up to and including, through, or to. Here are some examples:

  • The years 1929–1939 were difficult ones for economies throughout the world.
  • For homework, read chapters 1–3 of The Great Gatsby.
  • The recipe for gluten-free brownies appears on pages 9–12.
  • Join us on Monday, 5:00–6:30 p.m., for a champagne reception.
  • The Paris–Vienna train leaves at ten o’clock.
  • St. Louis defeated San Francisco, 42–6.
  • The chess club voted 17–5 to make Wendy its president.

En dashes are also used with compound adjectives (adjectives consisting of more than one word) in which at least one element is an open compound (a compound word with spaces in it, such as ice cream). For instance:

  • the post–Cold War years
  • a romantic comedy–influenced script
  • the New York–New Jersey border
  • a Frank Gehry–designed museum
  • a White House–backed proposal

In these cases, the en dash is meant to indicate a more comprehensive link than a hyphen would. Think of it this way: if you replaced the en dash with a hyphen in any of these examples, only the words closest to the hyphen would appear to be part of the adjective. For instance, if a hyphen was substituted for the en dash in the second example, the meaning would change to a romantic, comedy-influenced script. Regarding this usage of the en dash, Chicago states, “This editorial nicety may go unnoticed by the majority of readers.” But I think it’s important to be nice.

Since you surely want to start using the en dash right away, it’s available now in the Symbol dialog box of your version of Word or Outlook. If nothing else, remember that en is an acceptable two-letter word when you get down to those last few letters in Words With Friends.

Thanks for reading. Gotta dash!

Life Is But a Dream

HouseA few weeks ago, I saw photos of the house where I spent my formative years. The residence had been expanded, gut-renovated, and impeccably appointed. Among the things I clearly recognized were the nook in the kitchen, where my family had shared a decade of meals, and the tree out back, which had often been the focal point of our imaginative play. But the tree, instead of being surrounded by untamed plants and uneven rocks, was now paved in with bricks and encircled by manicured shrubs.

Just a few days ago, after I had already started writing this post, my best friend from when I lived in that house texted me from the property! She described it as “totally different, but so familiar.” I could identify with her statement, based on the photos I saw—and on my own regular visits. You see, although I haven’t set foot in the house in over 30 years, I dream about it every few weeks. My unconscious mind returns there to weave new stories. And while the action is different from what actually happened in my childhood, the setting remains deeply familiar.

Action and setting are just two of the classic story elements present in our nocturnal adventures; others include character, plot, and mood. In this sense, we are all master storytellers! Last week, my husband relayed a vivid dream that could easily become a short story (or an episode of The Twilight Zone): Aliens abducted him and a group of people, imprisoning them as livestock to be eaten. As the captives realized there was a hero among them who could engineer their escape, our real-life dog insisted on her breakfast, and the dream ended. I wish I knew how the story ended! (Dogs must be amazing storytellers, too, given how they twitch, whimper, growl, snort, and yip in their sleep.)

The scenarios in dreams feel very real to us at the time. Only after we awaken do we have the perspective to say, “I had the weirdest dream!” Then we seek more stories, both fiction (movies, novels, television dramas) and nonfiction (news stories, friends’ stories, stories we tell ourselves and others about our own experiences). We invest ourselves in these stories as we do in our dreams, and then pull ourselves out in order to carry on with our day.

When you think about it, our lives are essentially stories in progress, bookended by birth and death. We wonder, “What’s next?” (in the plot) and “How will all this end?” (on the last page). Being unable to answer these questions with certainty makes us anxious, and perhaps we find comfort in the worlds of stories that have defined beginnings, middles, and ends. Some belief systems maintain that life itself is a dream, which would suggest that we author our lives just as we author our dreams. Maybe, eventually, we will awaken to the real reality and have no more dreams and seek no more stories.

Whether life is reality, a story, or a dream, we might as well row our boats gently (and merrily) down its stream.