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.

What I Have Learned from Cupcakes

Birthday Cupcake

“Mini me” cupcake

Pumpkin Pie Cupcakes

Pumpkin pie cupcakes

If someone who knows me were to play word association with my name, he or she might come up with editor, blonde, or short, but not before cupcakes. My obsession with cupcakes started five or six years ago. I blame artist Wayne Thiebaud, whose thickly painted pastries really captured my imagination. (I even wrote a short story about his piece Pies, Pies, Pies.) Though not a cook or even a baker, I follow recipes, hope for the best, and post photos of the results.

Unicorn Poop Cupcake

Unicorn poop cupcake

Today is my birthday, so it seems an appropriate occasion to reflect on my relationship with these classically celebratory confections. Here are some lessons that cupcakes have taught me about life and dessert:

  1. Sometimes, the icing on the cake is literally the icing on the cake.
  2. Making a mess is much more fun than cleaning it up.
  3. Our creations inevitably fall short of our imaginations.
  4. Even if you visualize something over and over, it will never happen exactly that way.
  5. Having an obsession makes it easy for people to buy you gifts you’ll love (“Oh my God! Cupcake dish towels!”).
  6. Measure twice, bake once.
  7. Always keep chocolate in the house.
  8. Think on your feet (and wear comfortable shoes).
  9. Push yourself beyond what you know you can do.
  10. There’s no shame in having an entire drawer of sprinkles (or an entire cupboard, room, or wing of the house of whatever you treasure or collect).
Graduation Cupcake

Graduation cupcake

Ultimately, for me, cupcakes are about spreading joy. As I say on my neglected Twitter page, I love baking cupcakes for family, friends, friends of friends, friends of family, and anyone who will make yummy sounds while eating them.

And I always bake a few extras for myself.

“Aardvark Bowling” and Other Poems

aardvark bowling

While on a plane this week, I perused a year-old issue of Writer’s Digest. (I’m a little behind on my reading.) An article about a type of poem called the glosa, which originated in Spain in the 15th century, caught my attention. The author had made his own attempt at the form, which reminded me of how much I used to like writing poetry—imaginatively articulating thoughts and emotions through rhythm and heightened language, seeking and (hopefully) finding the words that most perfectly expressed my subject’s essence.

Aardvark Bowling

“Aardvark Bowling”

Scrabble

“Scrabble”

When I arrived home, I pulled out a black three-ring binder containing materials from a class I took over a dozen years ago, called “Writing from the Collective Unconscious.” I vaguely remembered composing most of the pieces (for example, “Scrabble”) per a number of inspiring assignments. For instance, in an exercise on surrealism, we were instructed to write the letters A to Z on a piece of paper and then record the first word that came to mind for each. We were then asked to choose two consecutive words from the list to serve as the title of a poem. (See “Aardvark Bowling.”)

At my instructor’s invitation, I read the following poem, “Luxor,” at a community arts event. I began writing it in the food court of the Las Vegas hotel of the same name.

Luxor

As an English major, I “explicated” (interpreted and explained) countless poems. It occurred to me years later that analyzing a poem was like dissecting a frog—examining the parts in order to understand the whole. In a high school classroom, a frog is dead when it is taken apart; I wondered if the life left a poem when it was analyzed. To be on the safe side, I decided not to cut up any more poems.

Now I just enjoy their music and experience their meaning.

Authors Should Need a License to Write Metaphors

And I mean that literally, not figuratively. The author of a manuscript I edited recently loved metaphors, but she used them poorly. Her implied resemblances between unrelated things tended to be convoluted and to confuse more than clarify. Moreover, they were trite (life is a tapestry) and often mixed (life is a race and a puzzle, at the same time). I rewrote the metaphors that could be salvaged and deleted the ones that had no hope of making a positive contribution to the text.

I got to thinking that maybe only writers as masterful as Shakespeare should be allowed to use figurative language.

But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

See? Nice.

But maybe I was being too restrictive. Metaphors, similes, and analogies can elicit a deeper understanding of a concept when they are original, apt, and clear. They can also convey meaning quickly, vividly, and memorably, whether in writing or in speech. For example, my husband uses a number of effective analogies—relating to Mrs. Fields cookies, ordering in a restaurant, and getting highlights at the salon—in business negotiations.

So if you really want to compare your beloved to a summer’s day, I won’t stop you. You might consider the following steps for creating your very own fancy talk:

  1. Select the concept you want to illustrate through a metaphor, simile, or analogy. Example: life.
  2. Identify the point you’d like to make about the concept. Example: Life is full of surprises, and you never know what will happen next.
  3. Think of an unrelated idea that has the same qualities as your concept and the point Box of Chocolatesyou are trying to make. Example: In a box of assorted chocolates, the candies look similar on the outside, but inside there might be nougat, ganache, caramel, lemon, cherry, raspberry, key lime, coconut, mocha, mint, pineapple, marshmallow, marzipan, fudge, almond crunch…sorry, where was I? Until you bite into one of the chocolates, you won’t know what’s inside.
  4. Formulate and refine your simple and stunning figure of speech. Example: Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.

A bad metaphor can obscure even the most obvious idea. But a good metaphor, according to poet Pablo Neruda, can reveal the mysteries of the world.