Is Responsibility the Enemy of Creativity?

fortunes raccoons

Last week, raccoons knocked over one of the trash cans. I had made chicken soup from scratch, and the local nocturnal carnivores couldn’t resist the bones. Among the scattered contents of the clawed-open bag, I came across something intriguing: the little strips of paper from two fortune cookies. There was no sign of the cookies themselves, which I had discarded intact. I imagined the scene that took place the night before: two satiated raccoons leaning back, cracking open the crisp cookies, and comparing the vague prophecies inside.

Who could blame them? It’s hard to resist finding out what a baked good has to say about your life. I dare you not to go to this site and open a virtual fortune cookie for yourself. (It’s gluten-free!) I clicked through a few:

  • “You will be called upon to help a friend in trouble.”
  • “You are cautious in showing your true self to others.”
  • “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.”
  • “Love comes quickly, whatever you do.” (Thank you, Pet Shop Boys.)

The predictions, observations, recommendations, and aphorisms found in fortune cookies are ingeniously general; they can be interpreted as applying to almost anyone’s life. Even if we don’t take these messages seriously (with the possible exception of those who have played the “lucky numbers” and won), their allure reflects our desire to understand ourselves and to anticipate the future. Some people may seek this kind of insight through more formal divinatory tools, such as astrology, numerology, and the tarot. I recently had a meaningful experience in this regard.

I have written about Jean Haner before. She is an expert in Chinese face reading, an ancient branch of Chinese medicine. She also has the ability to read the patterns in a person’s birthdate. Several weeks ago, I submitted a written question to her monthly call-in show. As I had done for the previous several months, I asked what my date of birth said about being a creative writer. Unlike in previous months, however, she chose my question! Here is her reading, excerpted for brevity:

You’re talking about writing creatively. There’s a huge part of you that will resist that. It [that part] feels overly responsible; it feels like first you have to pay attention to the practicalities and making sure everything’s in order, so it can kind of block the creative juices. I think that a lot of your focus has been on that up until now, and what I want to do is turn your direction into the second major influence in your life, which is an incredibly creative person. I want you to open to that and allow yourself to do that. There’s some perfectionism here, there’s some issues of self-confidence and worry about—you think you’re not creative.

There’s such a creative person here. In order to let that girl come out, you have to be much more light-hearted about it. You have to allow yourself to goof up. You have to allow things to get messy. You have to be more of a free spirit. That’s a big part of who you are, but I think that you’re such a responsible person that you kind of shoved the creative girl to the side and focus on being responsible. We never have to worry about you being responsible. We always have to worry about you having fun. And you’re meant to have fun with your writing, with your life. The creative process in the beginning and for a long time is messy; you don’t know what’s going to come out of that. And you like things nice and tidy. And so you’re going to have to tell that girl to go stand in the corner.

When I played the full reading for my husband, he asked how long Jean and I had been best friends. Indeed, she had accurately framed my current situation as a conflict between the impulses of responsibility and creativity; specifically, my exaggerated sense of duty to various things in my life is keeping me from accomplishing the writing I know I am meant to do. But there’s no point in marveling at amazingly astute advice—you have to act on it.

I haven’t told the responsible girl to go stand in the corner. But I think I’ve engineered a meeting in the middle with the creative girl: a short-story-writing class that starts tomorrow.

The Accidental Profession


The “vintage” Olivetti I learned to type on (not the actual machine but the same model, available on eBay)


Copyedited manuscript page

About a week ago, I read the description of an online workshop being offered by Writer’s Digest University, called “Introduction to Copyediting.” The first thing I noticed about the course outline was its random capitalization, which either ironically undermined the validity of the curriculum or was a sly statement on the importance of copyediting. The topics covered seemed to capture what a copyeditor does. For example:

  • “How to properly use Quotations”
  • “Proper use of Commas, Colons, and Semicolons”
  • “Avoiding Redundant Words”
  • “Keep an eye out for consistency”
  • “How to prevent a writer from making all sorts of embarrassing mistakes”

I wondered, “How did I manage to collect these skills?” Based on my experience, here are the steps to becoming a copyeditor:

  1. Be exposed to the word editor at an early age. My first-grade teacher asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said “writer.” The girl next to me said “editor.” I wasn’t quite sure what an editor did, but I felt it had something to do with books.
  2. Learn how to type. When I was about 12, I taught myself from a manual, on a manual.
  3. Have Mr. Thorn for English. Almost everything I know about grammar I learned in junior high.
  4. Edit your college roommate’s paper. When I was a freshman, my roommate asked me to look over an essay she was about to turn in. It was my first editing job. She got a B and was very happy.
  5. Apply for a job as a secretary. A week or two after graduating with a BA in English Literature, I answered a newspaper ad for a secretary at a publishing company. I aced the typing test. (See item 2.)
  6. Get promoted. Over the course of eight years, I worked my way up to the position of senior editor. One of my tasks was to manage the work of copyeditors; I observed what they did and became overly familiar with The Chicago Manual of Style.
  7. Go freelance. Eleven years ago, I began offering my services as a copyeditor.
  8. Learn something new every day. Each manuscript presents its own challenges, providing a constant education.

My first supervisor called publishing the “accidental profession.” While becoming a copyeditor may have been a bit random, certain things in my life pointed toward a career in publishing. As a child, I made tiny books to sell; I vaguely recall unloading one for a dollar. I remember being inspired by an arts-and-crafts toy from the drug store, the final product of which was a bound book about a grasshopper. In junior high, I produced an anonymous newspaper, calling myself the “Phantom Editor.”

I’m sure there are doctors, lawyers, firefighters, astronauts, professional athletes, rock stars, actors, architects, teachers, artists, and writers who always knew what they “wanted to be.” And perhaps people who pursue advanced degrees or seek vocational training have a pretty good idea. But I imagine that the majority of professions are accidental. For example, the other day, I found myself musing, “Who sets out to work at a property management company?” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I wonder if my precocious six-year-old classmate ever became an editor. Or a property manager.

Write What You Know, Edit What You Don’t

International Space Station

Earlier this week, I prepared a writing sample for a potential client. To expand a scene involving the International Space Station, I researched the ISS and studied photographs of its interior and exterior. I learned a number of interesting things about it, some of which I incorporated into the text: it’s about food on the ISSas long and wide as a football field, its maximum occupancy is six, the astronauts don’t wear shoes (except when tethered to a treadmill), and food has to be secured to the table so it doesn’t float up.

Speaking of microgravity, an editor can be thought of as hovering above a manuscript, at a distance that allows objectivity. From this perspective, the editor ensures that the content is logical, accurate, and—most importantly—clear to the reader. But what if this Track Changes whiz has no prior knowledge of the subject matter? This scenario is often the case. Otherwise, an editor might wait a long time for a project in his or her wheelhouse—or even general interest—to come along. I have yet to edit a book on cupcakes, romantic comedies, or the eccentricities of Basenjis.

People have asked me how I am able to comment intelligently on an unfamiliar topic. Based on my experience, such ignorance can actually be an asset. Unhampered by what I don’t know, I can easily put myself in the position of the reader. If I encounter material that doesn’t make sense, I know it will probably confuse the reader, as well. Then I educate myself sufficiently to suggest a reworking. In recent years, I have become a temporary expert in such areas as business, history, psychology, self-help, yoga, and surfing.

Here are some basic steps an editor can take to demonstrate ephemeral expertise:

  1. Forget what you know and what you think you know.
  2. Question everything.
  3. Check all facts against multiple reliable sources.
  4. Suggest appropriate changes.
  5. Forget what you learned, to make room for the next topic.

Don’t ask me how editors became temporary experts before Google!

Random Acts of Capitalization

Did you know that the phrase “less is more” may have originated from an 1855 poem by Robert Browning? In the 1960s, “less is more” was adopted as an axiom of minimalist architecture. It has since served as a guiding principle in various contexts, including interior design, advertising, and corporate communications. The “less is more” philosophy also applies to an oft-misused element of written English, capitalization.

lowercaseCopyeditors haven’t always tracked changes in word processing documents. As recently as the 1990s, we marked up hard copies of manuscripts with red pencils (by the dim glow of kerosene lamps). The protocol for indicating an improperly capitalized word was to strike through it with a forward slash. For me, this dramatic gesture was often accompanied by the thought, “Why? Nooo!” So, why do people seem to think that capitalizing with abandon is such a capital idea?

We are taught in school that certain words are meant to be capitalized, such as the first word in a sentence or quotation, the pronoun “I,” proper nouns, days of the week, months of the year, and holidays. I believe that writers, both casual and serious, are worried they will fail to capitalize when they should. So they overcompensate, introducing capitalization where it isn’t appropriate.

Following are some of the more common capitalization mistakes I encounter in my editing, with the corresponding rules from The Chicago Manual of Style. In the examples, the incorrectly capitalized letters are bold.

Error: Capitalizing important words.

  • Example: “The book is about Jazz Musicians.”

Rule: Initial capitals, once used to lend importance to certain words, are now used only ironically.

An example of the ironic use of initial caps might be, “Last night, she and her boyfriend had The Talk.” Interestingly, Shakespeare is said to have capitalized words, in the original text of his plays, that he wanted his actors to emphasize. Another tidbit: in German, all nouns are capitalized.

Error: Capitalizing titles and offices when they appear after or replace a personal name.

  • Example: “George Washington was the first President of the United States.”
  • Example: “Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, played a major role in the naval history of World War II.”
  • Example: “I spoke to the Rabbi.”
  • Example: “She served as the Chief Financial Officer of Vandelay Industries.”

Rule: Civil, military, religious, and professional titles are normally lowercased when following a name or used in place of a name.

Titles appearing before a personal name are capitalized, such as “President Lincoln.” There is an exception, however, for titles used “in apposition”—such as “American president Abraham Lincoln.”

Error: Capitalizing words like army and navy when used on their own.

  • Example: “Elvis joined the Army in March 1958.”

Rule: Words such as army and navy are lowercased when standing alone, when used collectively in the plural, or when not part of an official title.

So, “the army,” “the armies,” and “the United States Army” would be correct.

Error: Capitalizing academic subjects.

  • Example: “He is majoring in Comparative Literature.”

Rule: Academic subjects are not capitalized unless they form part of a department name or an official course name or are themselves proper nouns.

So, “Gender Studies Department,” “Cake Decorating 101,” and “Spanish” would be correct.

Error: Capitalizing seasons.

  • Example: “Santa Barbara holds an annual parade celebrating the Summer solstice.”

Rule: The four seasons are lowercased.

The four seasons are capitalized, however, when used to denote an issue of a journal, such as “Journal of Cupcake Science 2 (Summer 2015).”

So remember, when it comes to capitalization, less is often more. Your overworked Shift key will thank you.

That’s an Understatement

Queen Victoria

The British daily newspaper The Guardian has called it “the most common rhetorical device you’ve never heard of.” I propose that even if you’ve heard of it, you have no idea how to pronounce it (unless you’re a 13-year-old in the National Spelling Bee). Litotes is a form of understatement. Despite the “s” at the end, “litotes” is singular; that is, you wouldn’t call an instance of it “a litote.” Another surprise is that the word litotes has three syllables, as you can hear here.

Litotes is usually discussed in the context of hyperbole (extravagant exaggeration). Hyperbole and litotes are presented as opposites, or at least as contrary companions. Perhaps it is not shocking that every single person in the world recognizes blustery hyperbole, whereas quiet litotes goes largely unnoticed. (In the previous sentence, “every single person in the world” is hyperbole; “not shocking” is litotes.)

Greek for “plain” or “simple,” litotes has a dizzying definition: “the assertion of an affirmative by negating its contrary” (M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms). To understand litotes, consider these simple steps for creating it:

  1. Identify your point. Example: “This restaurant is expensive.”
  2. Form the opposite. Example: “This restaurant is cheap.”
  3. Make it negative. Example: “This restaurant is not cheap.”

“This restaurant is not cheap” is an understated way of saying “This restaurant is expensive.”

Here are additional examples of litotes and their meanings:

Example Meaning
The drive wasn’t bad. The drive was good.
I don’t disagree with you. I agree with you.
She is not unlike her sister. She is like her sister.
He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He’s dumb.
A thousand dollars is no small amount. A thousand dollars is a lot.
You won’t want to leave. You’ll want to stay.
Are you also aware that Ferris does not have what we consider an exemplary attendance record? Ferris has a poor attendance record.

Note that the “meanings” are much bolder than their understatements. They declare what is rather than contradict what is not.

Litotes can serve multiple purposes. If you’re a Texas hold ’em pro but want to downplay your skills out of modesty, you might say, “I am not an inexperienced poker player.” If you are trying to console a friend who totally screwed up, you might say, out of empathy, “You were not completely successful.” If you are a political candidate who wants to call your adversary a liar without causing an uproar, you might say, passive aggressively, “My opponent is not innocent of misstating the facts.” Other functions of litotes include euphemism, irony, and comedy.

But my favorite is probably poetry: “The course of true love never did run smooth” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Who Was Lady Mondegreen?

Lady Mondegreen

Have you ever been shocked to discover that the words of a song you’ve heard countless times were not the actual lyrics—or even close? Would you also be shocked to know there is a term for this kind of error? A mondegreen is a word or phrase that results from mishearing or misinterpreting something auditory, such as a song. The listener substitutes words that sound similar to the misheard content and that seem sufficiently plausible in context.

A famous mondegreen is “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” (instead of “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” a line from Jimi Hendrix’s song “Purple Haze”). Another oft-cited musical mondegreen is “There’s a bathroom on the right” (rather than “There’s a bad moon on the rise,” Creedence Clearwater Revival). Examples of mondegreens in everyday language include “for all intensive purposes” (“for all intents and purposes”), “deep-seeded” (“deep-seated”), and “one in the same” (“one and the same”). I am always surprised to find that someone thinks the name of the HBO series about Carrie Bradshaw and her friends is Sex in the City (not Sex and the City).

The word mondegreen is itself a mondegreen. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in Harper’s Magazine in November 1954. When Wright was a child, her mother would read to her from an eighteenth-century collection of ballads and popular songs. One of Wright’s favorite poems, “The Bonny Earl o’ Moray,” began as follows:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

Wright envisaged Lady Mondegreen as a woman with dark curls and a green dress, her throat pierced by an arrow; she lay at the earl’s side, holding his hand. However, the real fourth line of the verse was not “And Lady Mondegreen” but “And laid him on the green.” In other words, there was no Lady Mondegreen! Wright memorialized her tragic yet nonexistent heroine in the name of the phenomenon she exemplified.

I believe I have proof that a musician succumbed to a mondegreen—in his own song! Duran Duran released the album Seven and the Ragged Tiger in November 1983. Here is the chorus of the second track, “New Moon on Monday” (scanned from the inner sleeve):

New Moon chorus
The first few times I heard the song, I mistook “firedance through the night” for “five days through the night”—words that romantically evoked a night so long and full of adventure that it was equivalent to five days. (This line has stumped others, as well.) I caught my mistake, however, while studying the actual lyrics. When the video for “New Moon on Monday” premiered, I was astonished to see that John Taylor, the group’s bassist, seemed to have the same misunderstanding! Near the end of the video, while enthusiastically lip-syncing “And a firedance through the night,” he twice held up his hand as if indicating the number five—as in “five days through the night”!

five days

“Five days through the night”?

It seems inconceivable that a guitarist would hear his own song incorrectly, so perhaps I misperceived the gesture and substituted my own interpretation—you know, a new moon.

The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest

Cartoon captionI have become obsessed with the New Yorker’s weekly cartoon caption contest. Since the magazine’s first issue, in 1925, it has been known for its cartoons. They have even attained pop-culture status. You may recall a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine demands to know why a particular New Yorker cartoon is funny. The magazine’s editor responds, “Cartoons are like gossamer, and one doesn’t dissect gossamer.” In other words, “I don’t get it either.” The caption contest has existed since 2005. On the HBO series Bored to Death, Ted Danson’s character, George, studies the contest cartoon, on the last page of the magazine. He muses, “What would a police duck say to a suicidal bear? . . . ‘You can bear it.’ Oh God, that’s terrible. I’m never gonna win this thing.” Actually, some of the reader-generated captions are very good. Of the ones I have seen, my favorite accompanies the illustration of a woman and a clown at a sidewalk café table. The clown is seated, looking sad. The woman is standing, her wine untouched. She says, “Well, if you must know, he makes me laugh.” You can see it here.

I have to imagine that the contest presents one of the best ways for the average person to get published in the New Yorker. Still, the odds are against you: the magazine receives five to ten thousand entries per contest. (You’d probably have better luck with a letter to the editor.) And being a celebrity doesn’t help: High-profile losers include comedian Zach Galifianakis, political satirist Stephen Colbert, country singer Brad Paisley, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, and three-term mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg. In 2011, film critic Roger Ebert became a finalist and won, on his 107th try.

How does the contest work? The magazine publishes a cartoon in need of a caption. Readers submit their captions online. The magazine chooses three finalists, on which the public votes. The winning caption appears in the magazine, and the winner receives a print of the captioned cartoon, signed by the artist who drew it—a.k.a. my new goal in life. Is there a magic formula for getting a caption past the judges? Humor would seem to be the most important component. Contest winner Patrick House, a Stanford University neuroscientist, offers some insight:

To understand what makes the perfect caption, you must start with the readership. Paging through the New Yorker is a lonesome withdrawal, not a group activity. The reader is isolated and introspective, probably on the train commuting to work. He suffers from urban ennui. He does not make eye contact. Laughing out loud is, in this context, an unseemly act sure to draw unwanted attention. To avoid this, your caption should elicit, at best, a mild chuckle. The first filter for your caption should be: Is it too funny? Will it make anyone laugh out loud? If so, throw it out and work on a less funny one.

Chicago attorney Larry Wood, who has won multiple times, gives the opposite advice: “I think you should try to be as funny as you can.” The New Yorker’s cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, concurs; to increase your chances of winning, he recommends, “Be funnier.” I have collected the following additional tips from Mankoff, past champions, and researchers who have studied the contest:

  1. Be persistent. Enter every week.
  2. Be brief.
  3. Minimize punctuation, especially exclamation points.
  4. Be novel and surprising. (A thousand people might send in the same caption, if it’s an obvious fit for the drawing.)
  5. Be abstract, such that the picture can’t be retrofitted to the caption.
  6. Use simple language.
  7. Avoid proper nouns.
  8. Cover everything that’s happening in the image, but don’t restate what’s in it.
  9. Avoid puns and labored wordplay.
  10. Keep it clean.

I have entered six times. So, who’s with me? Remember, if you don’t enter, you can’t be bitter when someone else’s subpar caption wins.