Too good in English class

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, February 18, 2014 11:39 PM

I have written before of my profession, and of my hopes of channeling my somewhat shoddy talent into perhaps a book career. It’s my dream, but one I often don’t do enough toward achieving. I found out today that the reason may be because I was too good in English. Allow me to explain.

Writers may be good at putting words together to make a cohesive sentence. Sometimes even good at having those sentences make a paragraph make a blog post. But what we truly excel at is procrastination. Writers would rather do just about anything other than write. We have a deadline. We know we have something due – in my case a piece of copy, an article, a book chapter – and so we go clean out a closet, or do some laundry. It’s amazing how clean a house can become when a deadline looms.

The blogosphere is filled with tales of people like me, professional writers and writer-wanna-bes who can find any number of things to do other than place index fingers on the “f” and the “j” and let the others fall into place in order to try to type something, anything, everything.

I read a story today that quoted an editor talking about the first book she was assigned to work on, in the late 1990s. The book had gone under contract in 1972. A procrastinating writer for sure.

Megan McArdle, a journalist, blogger and author, has developed a theory that writers are such procrastinators because they were too good in English class. Her theory basically explains it like this: “Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A's in English class. (There are exceptions, but they often also seem to be exceptions to the general writerly habit of putting off writing as long as possible.) At an early age, when grammar school teachers were struggling to inculcate the lesson that effort was the main key to success in school, these future scribblers gave the obvious lie to this assertion. Where others read haltingly, they were plowing two grades ahead in the reading workbooks. These are the kids who turned in a completed YA novel for their fifth-grade project. It isn’t that they never failed, but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talents kept them at the head of the class.”

I always got A’s in English, as well as most of my classes. I was blessed with a fairly quick mind and one that holds onto information. I test well, and rarely studied when I was in school. Even so, I was a member of the honor society. I’ve spent my life having things like grades come easily to me, cruising along on what I believe to be my natural ability. Now that it really matters, that people read what I have written, that I might actually influence someone, every time I write it becomes a referendum on how good a writer I actually am, not just how good I think I might be, or how good I was at English in high school and college. As long as I haven’t written anything then, I can still live in my fantasy world where it’s bound to be great, bound to change minds and worlds. As McArdle said: “Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.”

The fear of being unmasked as a fraud – a hack – actually has a clinical name. It’s called the “impostor syndrome.” Evidently there are a tremendous amount of women who believe they – we – haven’t earned what we have and so are constantly at risk of being unmasked. We’re frauds; we’re just waiting for someone to find out. It’s very stressful.

I wonder if I’m an impostor every day. Now I’m left to wonder if it’s because I was too good in English long ago when I was in school. If I could go back in time, would I do worse on purpose? Probably not. I would still need to turn in the perfect report, the creative short story.

I’m just not sure I’d meet the deadline.

Celebrating the idea that I’m not alone in my procrastination. 

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live out loud

Age of reinvention

by Lorin Michel Monday, August 5, 2013 12:00 AM

The other night, Return to Lonesome Dove was on AMC. I had never seen it and didn’t see it this time. I was a fan of the original mini-series, as well as the book by Larry McMurtry. The original series starred Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones; the sequel starred Jon Voight. The little bit I saw, perhaps the last half hour, was fairly decent and Jon Voight was a worthy replacement for Tommy Lee Jones in the role of the Captain. It got me to thinking about reinvention and how we all have the opportunity to change ourselves if we have the desire and the strength.

I’ve never been a fan of Jon Voight’s. In his early career, when he did Midnight Cowboy and The Champ, he was a pretty boy. Of course, he also did Coming Home. Still, his career waned for quite some time, but as he grew older, he took on more interesting roles and reinvented himself as a supporting actor with an edge. He was great as FDR in Pearl Harbor (probably one of the few decent things about that film), in the first Mission: Impossible and most recently in Ray Donovan on Showtime. I appreciate his ability to change and to be more than relevant as he gets older (he’s 74). He’s interesting.

One of our favorite character actresses was the late Kathryn Joosten who played the beloved Mrs. Landingham on The West Wing. She didn’t even start acting until she was 42, in community theatre in Illinois. At the age of 59, she landed the role as President Bartlet’s personal secretary. Her career, one that would actually be quite extensive, including winning two Emmy Awards for her role as Karen McCluskey on Desperate Housewives, was entirely in the second phase of her life.

Julia Child didn’t publish her first cookbook until she was well into her 40s. Laura Ingalls Wilder, the famed pioneer woman who wrote the Little House on the Prairie books, didn’t publish the first one until she was 65. Her daughter Rose helped to edit and shape the stories that became, and are still, bestsellers. Frank McCourt didn’t publish his first book, Angela’s Ashes, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, until he was 66.

Grandma Moses, the American folk painter known for her vibrant rural landscapes, spent most of her life doing embroidery. She didn’t start painting until she was 76, when near crippling arthritis made it impossible to hold a needle and thread. Painter Alfred Wallis began painting after his wife’s death, when he was 67. A deep-sea fisherman by trade, he painted seascapes from memory in a style that became known as naïve art where perspective is ignored and scale is based on importance rather than actuality.

Other people who reinvented themselves later in life, regardless of age, include Irene Pennington who took over Pennington Oil when she was 97 years old and turned the company’s $600 million in assets into some real money; and Melchora Aquino.

In 1896, Melchora Aquino had already raised her six children and was content to sing in her local church. But when the Philippine Revolution broke out, she became the “Mother of the Revolution.” She was jailed, deported and exiled but she prevailed. She was 84.

The list is nearly endless of people who looked at their lives, their situations, and decided to do something completely different. Sometimes it’s forced, but that’s not necessarily bad. It’s the universe’s way of saying you need to do something else because something else is going to be better.

Author Mark Walton wrote a book about this very thing. It’s called Boundless Potential: Transform your brain, unleash your talents, reinvent your work in midlife and beyond. In it he writes that neuroscience has recently concluded that adults are literally hardwired for lifelong reinvention through the “emergence of extraordinary new, creative and intellectual powers.” Rather than people lowering their aspirations as they get into the 50s and beyond, they are actually inventing profitable new careers and businesses and embracing artistic endeavors they had previously only dreamed about.

In his book, Walton writes of brain plasticity or the brain’s ability to keep growing and changing at every stage of life. As examples he gives Dr. Sherwin “Shep” Nuland, a nearly burned-out physician who reinvented himself as a brilliant writer in his 60s. Gil Garcetti, after losing his job as the Los Angles district attorney in his late 50s, transformed into one of America's leading photographers. Soon after Marion Rosen's physical therapy practice collapsed in her mid-50s, she created a unique method of bodywork treatments that is now practiced and taught around the world.

My best friend Bobbi reinvented herself as a psycho-therapist in the last years, going to school in her 30s and 40s, interning and getting licensed just last year. It’s tough to do but ultimately she will be in a better place, one where she is doing something she truly loves. Where she’s living it out loud.

It’s why we’re doing what we’re doing, too. Granted, the universe didn’t tell us to do it; it was our choice. But it was time. We’re in our 50s now. If we’re going to make something else happen, we need to take charge, make something happen. We need to reinvent ourselves because of our age, rather than in spite of it. Age doesn’t need to be a hindrance, something you suffer through on your way to the inevitable. It’s something to embrace because with age comes the wisdom needed to change, the patience required to see it through, and the creativity to make it happen. Something to celebrate indeed.

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live out loud

The many people inside

by Lorin Michel Saturday, June 22, 2013 11:22 PM

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “writers aren’t exactly people… They’re a whole bunch of people trying to be one person.” It’s a rather schizophrenic metaphor for what turns out to be a very schizophrenic lifestyle because writing truly is a way of life.

I’ve written here before that writing is not simply what I do but rather who I am. I’m writing constantly, even when I’m not typing or scribbling. I’m having ideas for stories or scenes for a story. I have characters present themselves to me in dreams or when I’m cooking dinner. Suddenly, there is a new person who has found his or her way into my imagination. My dreams often play like movies, stories that make perfect sense sometimes and at other times, no sense at all. And definitely no sense once I awake.

I always have something on which to scribble or write. In my purse, there is a small notebook and pen. Next to the bed, numerous loose pieces of notepaper and notebooks, and a pen. In my office, nearly infinite pieces of paper and pens, and my favorite mechanical pencil.

There is also my computer, my iPad with its trusty Notes app as well as my iPhone with its Notes app. I have become very adroit at “scribbling” with my thumbs.

I have scribbled things on paper that reside in the pockets of all of my jeans, at least until they go into the wash. The small bag I carry on the motorcycle has paper and pens as well, scribbled thoughts and notes and ideas, though I don’t use them as often because of the Notes app on the iPhone which now goes with me everywhere I travel.

I write and often when I do, I am not writing as me. I’m writing as a character, or as the beginnings of a character. Being present at the birth of a character can be an unpleasant experience, sometimes even a messy one.

Here are some of the characters that I currently have living inside with me:

There is Katherine, known as Kat, a woman who lost her daughter and then loses her mind. Hunter who is searching for the meaning of her life now that she has turned 50. Charlotte who is dying and desperate to make sure her husband has someone to make him happy once she’s gone.

There is Peter, an artist, who takes his horribly burned daughter from the expert doctors who aren’t helping her in Boston to a Medicine Woman who lives just outside a reservation in Arizona.

There is Simon who loses his wife and daughter and tries to rebuild his life by rebuilding a broken down old house.

There is Laurie who is raising her stepson with her husband and must confront all of her feelings about that fact when her husband dies and the boy’s biological mother, Zoey Ray, wants the boy back.

There is Evelyn Halloran who is eight years old and witnesses a murder in rural Pennsylvania in 1927.

There is, there is, there is.

And there are others that I’m writing for other people, like the historical fiction/memoir about a couple in Chicago who were separated by World War II, married after knowing each other just seven days and built a life together. They aren’t my characters, but they are still characters that are inside of me, fighting for space in my tiny little brain, living their lives and just waiting for me to set them free on paper.

It’s a weird way to live, having all of these people inside. The difference between being a writer and having schizophrenia is that schizophrenia is somewhat treatable. When one suffers from multiple personality disorder, it is also somewhat treatable.

I don’t believe anyone has yet found a cure for being a writer. Though I believe the cure can be found in the pages of books where some of the world’s greatest, most enduring people have lived sometimes for centuries. Letting the characters out so that they can take up residence in a story is the only cure I know of. And it’s one I celebrate every time I meet another character in the walkways of my mind, when we happen upon one another, nod in acknowledgement, shake hands. It’s often at 2:30 in the morning, when all the best people and characters are living it out loud. 

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live out loud

In which I cover myself in words

by Lorin Michel Sunday, February 24, 2013 12:04 AM

One of my favorite quotes is by the writer Anaïs Nin, which states, simply, that “We write to taste life twice.” I have it framed and hanging on a wall in my office, just above the light switch. I hadn’t thought until today that it might be a metaphor for the very act of writing. Is writing something we turn on or off? Yes. Is being a writer something that can be turned on or off? I don’t think so. Not for most writers and definitely not the ones who are passionate about it, even when it hurts them, even when it kills them; especially when it brings great joy. To be a writer is not something one does. It is who one is.

I am reminded of this fact all the time because I am never not writing. Oh, there are times when I’m not physically putting words onto paper, or in most cases, to a word document, but even when that’s not happening, I’m thinking about writing, getting ideas for a story or how to write myself out of a particular dilemma I have created in whatever piece I happen to be working on. I’m jotting down thoughts or interesting lines I think of. When I wake up, after an especially vivid dream, I find myself scribbling notes on a piece of paper. My desk is littered with pieces of paper.

I have written before about my fear that I’m not a very good writer, a fear that plagues many. Sometimes I write something and I sit back and think “Wow. That’s pretty damned good.” That doesn’t happen very often. Mostly I write something and I think “Hack.” I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I’ve always thought that people cursed with self-awareness inevitably hold themselves back, and I believe that most writers, this one included, are hyper aware. We see things that others don’t see, we hear sounds differently, smells transport us in ways that it don’t others, and we are forever compelled to scribble those awareness’ onto paper, iPhones, iPads, computers, journals, whatever is handy.

When we go for a motorcycle ride, I am the designated RIO, as in radar intercept officer. What I really do is give directions or point out things to watch for in case the pilot, in our case, Kevin, hasn’t seen them. Like the fact that there is a sea of brake lights ahead and the world is coming to a dead stop. Often though, we are out in the middle of nowhere, cruising along a relatively deserted road where we only see the occasional pickup truck or car, sometimes another motorcycle or two, almost always traveling in the opposite direction. We give the designated motorcycle wave, a quick acknowledgement with the left hand that never rises above the seat. It’s a quick “Hey, ride safe” to another cyclist we’ve never met and never will. I have little to do back there save for watching the birds passing low in front of us, or the side of the road for whatever trinkets may have fallen from passing cars. I see a lot of shoes and other items of clothing. Most of the time, I simply let my mind wander and it invariably creates some sort of story or at least the basis for one. Kevin asked me once what it is that I do back there while we’re riding through the canyons or along a back road to nowhere. I told him I write. He just smiled and nodded as if to say “Of course, you do because I’d expect nothing less.” He’s never asked me again.

The novelist Philip Roth once told an aspiring writer to “Quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good.” Elizabeth Gilbert responded by asking if writing is really all that difficult. “Is it more difficult than working in a steel mill, or raising a child alone, or commuting three hours a day to a deeply unsatisfying cubicle job, or doing laundry in a nursing home, or running a hospital ward, or being a luggage handler, or digging septic systems, or waiting tables … or pretty much anything else people do?”

I sometimes envy people who dig septic systems or drive garbage trucks. I have no illusion that they’d rather being doing something else, but perhaps they are perfectly content to simply work for a living and not have to think too much. Writing is constant thinking and it’s exhausting and exhilarating at once. Gilbert has said that writing is “The best life there is, because you get to live within the realm of your own mind, and that is a profoundly rare human privilege.” It also doesn’t usually get you institutionalized, like others who live within the realm of their own minds.

Writers are notorious complainers. We take a gift from the universe and we curse it endlessly, and yet we love it so. We are lost without words, we are forever searching out new ones to twist into sentences that become paragraphs that grow up to be chapters and eventually graduate into a book, hopefully a decent one.

Journalist Red Smith once said that “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” The writer to whom Philip Roth’s advice was cast is Jake Tepper. He wrote in a blog post on The Paris Review that “The one thing a writer has above all else, the reward which is bigger than anything that may come to him … is the weapon against boredom. The question of how to spend his time, what to do today, tomorrow, and during all the other pockets of time in between when some doing is required: this is not applicable to the writer. For he can always lose himself in the act of writing and make time vanish.”

As can I. I write instead of read because if I’m reading, I’m not writing but rather reading something that someone else wrote and I feel guilty and in awe and inspired all at once. I write to explore the joy and sorrow and mystery that is this life. I cover myself in words and I am warm and cozy and scared to death. And so I write more and when I’m done, I can sleep to dream, or ride on the back of the motorcycle to think; I can switch on the light and taste what imagination tastes like. I’m not sure I can describe it, though. Give me just a minute to scribble. 

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live out loud

Writer as bully

by Lorin Michel Friday, February 1, 2013 10:09 PM

When I was little, I was going to be a famous actor. After that I was going to be a rock star. Both of these fancies had passed by the time I was 12 or 13. Yes, I was in several drama productions during high school and it was fun; and sure, I continued to lip sync into a hairbrush in my room, but I knew neither of those would become an actual profession. I didn’t have the talent, nor the desire to be the center of attention, always on stage. I wasn’t designed for it. What I came to know I was designed for was something behind the scenes, something that involved words. It’s something I actually knew as a little girl.

From the time was I was seven or eight, I was writing stories. With a small pocket notebook crammed into the back of my wrangler jeans, and the nub of a pencil slid down next to it, I would find the tallest tree I could, climb as high as I dared, position myself on a branch and write stories of intrigue and mystery. The heroine’s name was always Julie, for the heroine on TV’s The Mod Squad. I thought she was hopelessly glamorous and cool. I thought the stories they did were exciting. At seven, I didn’t yet know or appreciate good acting in equally good stories. In my tree I would write and write and write until it was time to climb down and go inside for dinner.

As a teen, I graduated to writing horror and ghost stories. There’s something about ghosts and death and vampires and monsters that intrigues all teenagers, then as now. I seemed to always get an A on those tales and won several awards. Then I went to college, enrolled in their art program. I didn’t know what I was going to do with such a degree. I also enrolled in English classes. Before long I realized that I wasn’t a very good artist and didn’t even like it that much. I wasn’t visually creative. I threw myself into writing instead, graduating with a degree in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. I didn’t know what I was going to with that either, but at least I was happy.

I have always been driven to write. Whenever I have tried to veer away from that path, it has not fulfilled me. I have returned time and again to story telling, in one form or another. It’s not always a literal story though sometimes it is. Often times it’s story telling in the form of a company story. I do many of those and enjoy every one because each involves creation, the suspension of disbelief; it involves words and the art of stringing them together to form sentences, paragraphs, pages.

It’s a passion, a sickness, a need; an addiction. A day does not go by that I don’t write something, even if it’s just for this blog. Every day I am driven to the written word. I no longer sit in a tree. Instead, I sit in my loft. But there is something inside me that makes it impossible for me not to write.

I often wonder if I’m any good; if I’m really just lucky. I’m sure that I’m nothing more than a hack. Someone able to put sentences together nicely but without style; sentences that are fine but don’t sing. I question constantly whether this addiction is good for me. But like any drug, I must do it daily and have no desire to stop.

Several days ago, a book was released called “Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Writers on How and Why They do.” It’s edited by Meredith Maran. Inside, writers like Susan Orlean, Rick Moody, Jane Smiley, Walter Mosley, and Armistead Maupin among others, discuss the craft of writing and of being a writer. It’s a fascinating look into the sickness that is writing.

In it Water for Elephants author Sara Gruen writes that: “The only thing that makes me crazier than writing is not writing.” Memoirist Mary Karr says: “I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world. Also, I have a need for money.” I can relate.

Joan Didion who is sometimes one of my favorite writers because of her brutal honesty wrote this in her 1976 essay Why I Write: “In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives with ellipses and evasions – with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating – but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

It’s an interesting observation and I think a correct one. When I read I am looking to be convinced, to be transported, to be illuminated. As such I suppose I am being bullied a bit by a particular writer’s point of view. And as a writer, I equally suppose that I am bullying others to see things my way, to remember instances from their past because I suggest that they do. Does that really make me a bully? I don’t know.

James Frey, the acclaimed then humiliated writer of the false memoir A million little pieces admits: “I’m really not qualified to do anything else.” I suppose there are worse things to do than bully with the written word. Would that all schoolyard bullies could write to entice someone to see their point, rather than intimidate with fists and worse.

That would be a story to tell. Those would be words to celebrate

I'm an addict

by Lorin Michel Sunday, December 16, 2012 10:13 PM

As a writer I love books. My house is full of them, with hundreds in my office alone filling two bookshelves, and stacked in nearly every corner. I have additional ones stacked on the desk. Downstairs I have 11 on the coffee table in the living room and another 20 or so stacked up next to the antique music stand. Most of those are books about different types of architecture or wine. There is the biography of Steve Jobs and several books on antique toys; one on a round-the-world motorcycle trip taken by the actor Ewan McGregor; another called Full Moon. On a chair is a book on the art of Vladimir Kush, one of our favorite surrealistic painters. On an ottoman there is a book on wizards.

The bedroom sports a stack of books in the space between my side of the bed and my nightstand; more still on the shelf of our credenza/dresser. In the kitchen there are multiple cookbooks as there are in many kitchens. There are 10 to the right of the cooktop; in the cabinet above, another 10. In the drawer next to the sink, another five or six, mostly paperbacks that I rarely use unless I need a temperature for cooking something like a roast. I rarely cook roast.

There are books in the garage, mostly auto repair and about different tools; tiling and painting.

Kevin’s office also boasts dozens of books, many stacked up in the corner near his desk, some under the credenza, others on a book shelf.  Like me, he still has at least one dictionary and thesaurus; like me he never uses them, but neither one of us can bring it upon ourselves to throw them away. Throwing away books is sacrilege, especially to a writer. Or a writer’s husband.

I have probably said this before but I am physically incapable of not having too many books. Is there such a thing as too many? I buy books on Amazon at an alarming rate. Many remain unread for years but it doesn’t stop me from buying them anyway. Some I start to read but don’t get very far. At any given time, I may have three or four books in progress. Sometimes it’s because I don’t really like them; sometimes it’s because I like them but don’t love them enough to devour them. And I can devour a book in one setting if it grabs me. This happens often with any Alice Hoffman book; it happened with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I literally can’t put the book(s) down for fear of not knowing what is going to happen. Then, at the end, while I’m sorry to bid farewell to characters I’ve come to know and sometimes love, I usually feel a sense of deep satisfaction. It’s similar to seeing a deeply effective film, something that doesn’t happen often enough. In fact, I’m not sure I can remember the last one I saw where I left the theatre thinking and feeling content, and wanting to talk about it. That’s, to me, the mark of a strong film. The last one Kevin and I talked about at length after seeing it may have been Cast Away.

I digress.

I can’t go into Barnes & Noble without leaving with a bag of books that cost a minimum of $100. It’s a sickness, an addiction. Hi, I’m Lorin and I’m a book addict. I have no intention of going into any kind of a 12-chapter program. I am perfectly happy to wallow in my addiction, to drown myself in pages and pages of words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters. I don’t want an intervention; I know it wouldn’t help because I’m not ready to surrender to the disease. It can’t hurt me; it can only expand my mind and fill my soul. It can’t destroy me; it can only make me stronger.

I am a book addict. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are a dozen or so books calling my name.


by Lorin Michel Thursday, December 13, 2012 10:18 PM

I was reminded today of the extreme power that a small word can provide, and of the immense guilt or emotion it can cause in the recipient of said word. I speak of the word “oh.” We have long teased my mother that she can use this word better than anyone to convey an entire book of information. Whenever she has a visceral dislike of something, her immediate response is a patented “Oh,” with the ‘o’ very high and the ‘h’ as low as the ground. She also drags it out ever so slightly, like Ohhh. I have never met anyone that does the “Oh” better than my mother. She’ll often precede it with a brief pause, as if to inflict maximum angst in the recipient. She often follows it with another pause before an also patented nose wrinkle. She does it when she doesn’t like a particular clothing choice, or the color you’re painting your kitchen, or the car you’ve decided to buy.

The “Oh” has all the power of mom rolled into two letters. So does the word “No” if it’s done in much the same way with the “n” being a little higher and the “o” drawn out for maximum martyrdom. This was evidently something that Kevin’s mother mastered. An example: Mom, let me clean up the kitchen. “Noooo. I’LL do it.” Kevin uses this tactic on me quite often. It does not often work.

The smallest of words can deliver the biggest emotional bang. Take the word “fine.” It’s a word that any woman in a relationship has mastered. In fact, she probably mastered it in high school when dealing with parents that wouldn’t allow her to do everything in the world that she wanted to do simply because she wanted to. If you’re a woman, you remember. I want to drive to New York City with my friends for a rock concert. No. Fine!

Fine can actually be used two ways. It’s most potent is when it’s used to effectively end any conversation or argument. When used thus it is laced with hatred and bile. This is the kiss-my-ass fine that means the polar opposite of fine but signals there will be no more discussion. I.e. It isn’t fine and you suck.

The other fine is actually fine, as in oh-that’s-good. Whenever I hear “fine,” I almost always ask which fine it is, especially it not readily apparent. Which it usually is.

Another good word is “interesting” because it’s often used to signify something is anything but. It’s often said for something ugly. Men sometimes use it to describe a woman they don’t seem to find especially attractive. She’s “interesting.” My mother has used it along with “oh” when she really doesn’t like something. Well, it’s … interesting.

Still, “oh” remains my favorite probably because it comes from my mother.

Oh. (Is that what you’re wearing? This after you’ve spent an hour and a half in the bathroom getting dressed.)

Oh. (Are you really going to buy that? This after it’s already on the conveyor belt headed for the checker.)






When you can use one word to communicate a complete sentence, paragraph and page, you are very powerful indeed.


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live out loud

In the undictionary

by Lorin Michel Thursday, June 7, 2012 1:00 AM

At the beginning of this year, Bobbi and I embarked on a different kind of morning salutation. Rather than saying “good morning” on our iChats, we decided to start with the word of the day, something that serves to describe how we’re feeling at a particular moment that will hopefully or if it’s negative, hopefully not, carry us through the day. It’s been very interesting. Sometimes we’ve been so in sync that we’ve used the same word; sometimes we’re at least using words that are similar. Sometimes we’re at polar opposites, but it has made for some very different morning fodder.

Some of the words we’ve used have been un-words, or words we’ve made up. This actually started for me some time ago. Once upon a time, I was the senior copywriter at Sebastian International, the hair care company. Senior being sort of funny because I was also the only copywriter. But senior allowed me to make more money. One of the owners of the company was the creative director and thus my boss. She created the company’s products as well as the basic ideas for the collateral material. Brochures, ads, etc. Many a day, I’d sit in her office as she discussed her latest ideas, hands flailing big and wide as she explained, a yellow legal pad with her scribbled notes in front of her. Many a time, she’d finish, look at me, cock an eyebrow and then give me a very wicked smile. “I want a new word to describe this,” she’d say. “Something that’s never been used before.”

The first time she did that, I remember looking back at her. Staring probably. Trying to cock my own eyebrow, a talent I never particularly mastered. Then, after a minute, I got up and slunk back to my office. A word that’s never been used, something that’s never been written.

But I did it, time and again. Sometimes they were product names, sometimes they were concept philosophies, sometimes they were educational programs. Sometimes they were rejected, thrown across the room, stomped on and burned. Other times, I got taken out to lunch to celebrate with wine, or tequila. The boss loved tequila.

After I left Sebastian, I got out of the making-up-words business for a while, but lately I’ve found myself slipping back into it. Bobbi and I have even developed our own lexicon of sorts, creating an undictionary because I’m fairly certain that most of these contractions do not currently exist in Webster’s or on

Evidently we’re not alone. An article in the New York Times on Monday talked of how scholars have recently analyzed more that five million books, which incidentally comprises approximately 4 percent of all the books ever printed. The researchers discovered that “52 percent of the English lexicon – the majority of the words used in English books – consists of lexical ‘dark matter’ undocumented in standard references.” Standard references being dictionaries.

Writers tend to contribute to the lexical dark matter – a term that I already absolutely love and may adopt as my own – of language by writing about things that are “so new that the terms used to discuss them are still hot from the mold, or just through wordsmithery, the coining of words that need to exist for evocative, rather than technical, reasons.” Wordsmithery is such a word.

Jack Steele of the US Air Force created the word bionics in 1960. Writer Richard D. Rosen coined the word psychobabble in 1977. One of the more recent words that had never been used until it was is Grexit, used by Citigroup’s Ebrahim Rahbari and Willem Buiter to describe Greece’s exit from the euro zone.

Back in 1800, Samuel Taylor Coleridge created the word agasp. Emily Dickinson created resituate. Charles Dickens used scrunched in 1836 before it was actually a word. In Sketches by Boz he wrote: “He had compromised with the parents of three scrunched children, and just worked out his fine, for knocking down an old lady.” Scrunched children.

Our words include fabulocity and nervopoly (from March 29). We’ve used hamstering to describe the act of spinning our wheels and pinballing to describe the idea of bouncing from one thing to another. These are usually work-related made-ups. There are words we’ve heard through others like exhaustipated, which translates to being so tired you just don’t give a shit. Assholian describes a real jerk. Demoncracy is how we are currently talking about our political process. Sometimes we have brain holes, which is a phrase more than a word but still something most don’t use. It’s all about not remembering something. There’s innovasive which is when something truly innovative is also evasive. Like not being able to come up with a word that’s never been used. Bobbi coined wube for wine. No idea where that came from other than I suspect her fingers were just on the wrong keys. Puppylicious is self-evident. Roy contributed one the other day. Quadrupalous. No idea what it means but it has a rather pleasant sound as it leaves your tongue.

Another thing I recently discovered is that the art of making up words, according to the website, is called madeupical. You can look it up. 

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live out loud

The great first paragraphs from “The Year of Magical Thinking”

by Lorin Michel Friday, June 1, 2012 1:47 AM

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.

“Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. The computer dating on the Microsoft Word file (“Notes on change.doc”) reads: “May 20, 2004, 11:11 pm,” but that would have been a case of my opening the file and reflexively pressing save when I closed it. I had made no changes to that file in May. I had made no changes to that file since I wrote the words, in January 2004, a day or two or three after the fact.

“For a long time I wrote nothing else.

“Life changes in the instant.

“The ordinary instant.

“At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most striking about what had happened, I considered adding those words, “the ordinary instant.” I saw immediately that there would be no need to add the word “ordinary,” because there would be no forgetting it: the word never left my mind. It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. “He was on his way home from work – happy, successful, healthy – and then, gone,” I read in the account of the psychiatric nurse whose husband was killed in a highway accident. In 1966 I happened to interview many people who had been living in Honolulu on the morning of December 7, 1941; without exception, these people began their accounts of Pearl Harbor by telling me what an “ordinary Sunday morning” it had been. “It was just an ordinary beautiful September day,”  people still say when asked to describe the morning in New York when American Airlines 11 and United Airlines 175 got flown into the World Trade towers. Even the report of the 9/11 Commission opened on this insistently premonitory and yet still dumbstruck narrative note: “Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern  United States.”


The great first lines from Joan Didion’s chronicle of the unexpected and instant death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, from a heart attack on December 30, 2003, in The Year of Magical Thinking. They had just come from the hospital where their only daughter was near death. They sat down to dinner, and while Joan was in the kitchen, he had a massive coronary. By the time the paramedics arrived, he was gone.

It’s a wrenching story, a memoir of the year that followed as she struggled to come to terms with his death, to help her daughter and to learn how to live without him. I’ve never been a fan of either Didion’s or Dunne’s but this book was so lyrical, so clear, so heartfelt that I found myself weeping. It’s powerful and powerfully honest. A good read.

Interestingly, Didion’s daughter died shortly before the book was published. It’s not discussed in the book but she has written another, released just recently, entitled “Blue Nights” that discusses, just as honestly, the loss of her only child. I haven't read it yet; I think I will.

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great first paragraphs

On writer's blocks

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, April 4, 2012 9:55 PM

One of the wonderful gifts I received for my birthday in December was a set of three blocks. They’re 3.5” squares of aged wood and each one contains pictures, artwork and flowingly wonderful words for inspiration. Roy and Bobbi gave them to me, so each is also personalized. They contain wonderfully obscure phrases, poetry, dialogue and capsules of stories. They also contain images of some of the things I hold most dear. New England, Roy’s artwork, the moon, a Black Bear Block wine glass with just the barest hint of a Syrah swirling in the bottom; my beloved Maguire in his vintage years, his beautiful silver face framed in sunlight. They’re on my desk. I stare at them often; I play with them sometimes, stacking them, rearranging the images, reading the text. I find myself doing this on those days when I’m procrastinating and especially on those days when I’m trying to figure out what to write.

Suffering from writer’s block when you make your living as a writer can be fairly detrimental to making a living. Playing with writer’s blocks, however, can have a completely different effect.

I don’t remember playing with blocks when I was a kid. Do all children play with blocks? I guess if they do and I didn’t, it could explain a lot about me and how I see the world. I do seem to remember a photo, though, of me as a pup. The picture is black and white, and there are blocks in the foreground, near my little toddler feet. According to experts, blocks encourage children to build social, emotional, physical and even cognitive skills. They also help with problem solving, symbolic thinking and math. Most experts also think that blocks motivate creative thinking because it involves planning. Kids also learn about things like physics, patterns and nature. They’re building things using their blocks, yes, but ultimately they’re building things using their mind. It’s quite a concept.

All of this started in 1693 when John Locke, the philosopher as opposed to the Lost character, discussed how “dice and playthings, with letters on them to teach children the alphabet by playing” would help children to read. In 1798, the book Practical Education by Maria and R.L. Edgeworth called blocks rational toys that taught kids about gravity and spatial relationships. S.L. Hill patented ornamenting wood in 1820 and produced blocks with multiple colors, and by 1850, Henry Cole, aka Felix Summerly, was writing children’s books that discussed terracotta toy blocks and included actual blueprints for building.

How do writer’s blocks figure into this? I have no idea. Writer’s block is one of those semi-serious afflictions that hits wordsmiths from time to time and is characterized by a writer’s sudden loss of the ability to write. It can be a trivial condition, when a writer is only temporarily sidelined by feelings of inadequacy, often brought on by exhaustion. It’s nearly impossible to create something from nothing – which is basically what any type of art is, including writing – when you’re tired. The brain functions but it doesn’t function creatively, at least mine doesn’t. And if it does, it’s forced, convoluted and ordinary. The words that begin in my brain and travel the short distance to my fingers, exiting out onto the word document, are serviceable but they don’t sing, they don’t have power.

But my blocks have power. They must. They are covered with words and art and my beautiful boy looking back at me.

My blocks on a notebook with my scribbles, on my desk

There are writer’s who have been so incapacitated by writer’s block that they don’t write a word for years or have given up writing altogether. The great F. Scott Fitzgerald was said to suffer from writer’s block, a condition first chronicled in 1947 by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, seven years after Fitzgerald died. He even wrote a book on it: The Writer and Psychoanalysis in 1949. Perhaps if he had used blocks to help his writer patients, he could have had a real breakthrough. Imagine the theories that could have come from getting adults to participate in a game for toddlers in order to break through a closed psyche. Freud or Jung or somebody would have had a field day.

Dorothy Parker famously said that writing is “the art of applying the ass to the seat.” It’s not always that easy.

Luckily, I have my blocks to guide me. Once my butt is in the chair, of course.

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live out loud

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