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zeusSilent letters have always perplexed me. As a huge proponent of the English language, I can’t help but consider them my friends, but it’s more like in a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” sort of way.

Why name her “Sarah” when you can name her “Sara”? Why is it a “gnat” instead of a “nat” or a “knot” instead of a “not”? I’m sure somewhere along the way the letter was an important part of the word, for whatever reason, but these days… well, these days silent letters are simply the bane of my existence.

I saw a copy of the Declaration of Independence this week, and I noticed that the word was “Congrefs” instead of “Congress.” I completely understand if the type face didn’t have an “s” back in the 18th Century, but it so obviously did, as evidenced by the “s” at the end of the word. How hard would it have been to just put another one in front of it instead of that horrendously wrong looking “f”? Sometime around the 20th Century they fixed all of that nonsense, but I’m just curious why they had to suffer through it for so long before that.

And don’t even get me started on letters that don’t sound a thing alike, depending on the constitution of the other letters contained in the word they find themselves chained to at any particular time. For example, sometimes the G is hard, as in grape, and other times it’s soft, as in stranger. Sometimes the C makes a harsh sound, like in Carbon, while on occasion it’s smooth like in Cereal. How are kids supposed to recognize when it’s supposed to be the “s” sound instead of a standard “c”?

Then there’s words with blends, like the TH combo. What’s up with that one? “This” and “The” arguably start with different sounds. When the TH is at the end of the word it can be a hard stop or it can be a smooth ride, depending on whether or not a silent letter is tacked onto the other side of it. Think of words like “Bath” and “Bathe,” or “Breath” and “Breathe.”

We teach our mouths to say some difficult words throughout the course of our lives, but none are harder to adjust to than names. That’s because names are individual, even when they aren’t. That means even though Brianna and Brianna are spelled the same, one could carry an “ANA” and the other an “AHNA,” depending on whatever preference her parents had for her. That’s why as a teacher I always offer an apology each semester before trying to pronounce my students’ names.

“I know you’ve had your name for at least 17 years, so you’re very familiar with how it flows from your lips, but I don’t know you from ADAM, so I’m going to need a little help here,” I tell them before diving into the list of increasingly more challenging names to both spell and pronounce. Even when they seem easy.

And of course there are also words from other languages, where their rules are completely different from the ones for English, but at least they generally stick to their rules without so many exceptions. I swear, for every random group of English words there are probably a few exceptions. But when I look at French, and German, and even Spanish, there just aren’t too many things I can mess up, except for names. Of course names are still an issue, because in English, or Spanish, or even Swahili for that matter, they remain individual to each person, and so carry an element of surprise.

I’m used to seeing “Jesus” and thinking “Gee-Zuss.” That’s how I grew up, as the son of a preacher, in these here United States. But so many parents of Latino heritage proudly name their sons “Jesus” and it sounds like they’re calling the king of the Greek gods, like he’s getting away from them and they want to catch his attention. “Hey, Zeus! Wait up. Wanna play catch?” Or in the same language, the double-L situation that sounds more like a twisted “Y” than anything else?

So I never assume I’m saying anything correctly if I’ve never seen it before, even if it follows basic rules of other words I’m very familiar with, because odds are it just might be totally different. I might know how to say “Cow,” but “Mow” doesn’t carry the same sound. I might know that “Tao” rhymes with “Cow,” but some may think it must sound like “Day-o.” Your name might be “Maella,” and I have no clue it’s pronounced “Maya.”

That’s because language is fluid. It shifts and changes so often, the pronunciations undulating like so many snakes, and it can be manipulated to suit individual preference at the same time. There are probably a hundred ways to say different vowel sounds that I’m sure I haven’t heard every single one. And my brain hurts when I think about the sounds those pesky blends can possibly make.

But that’s the same reason I love language so much, because there’s always a word to express what you’re really feeling, what you really mean to say, at any given moment. There’s always a way to bend words to your will, to remake them in your own image, even within a small circle of friends. I love the idea that language can keep growing long after words are introduced and accepted into the lexicon. And I live for each first day of school, through all the starts and stops, as I learn each new name.

Because who likes things to be too easy?

Sam

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Words

These words are not mine
Even though they pass my lips
Like sparkling lemon water
Making me thirst for more
The undulating rhythms
Of living language thrive
They constantly vibrate
But I study them from afar
These turns of phrase
This quickening of terms
Shaking me to my core
They say such sweet things
But I don’t quite get them all
Though I give them their space
So they can breathe without me
This page filling with ink
Bleeding in blacks and blues
Spreading in all directions
And I can’t always follow
As they leave me in their wake
These reminiscent shadows
Of the words I used to know
When they belonged to me
Before I set them free.

Sam

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Dead Words

Freeshipping-200pcs-6-7mm-font-b-Silver-b-font-Gray-Plastic-font-b-Square-b-fontWords strung together like beads
Sliding in unison on a thin wire
Rusty with woebegone decay
Hanging like shards of glass
From a window shattered and torn
This incandescent shadow
Hiding in the light of day
Speaking without consequence
A muttering of well-worn phrases
Meant to intimidate by repetition
These bullies of stolid syntax
Impassive as teenage girls
Locked into their own world view
Punctuated by the drawing in of air
Between these forced gutturals
Shallow in the face of change
Hanging onto these dead words
Like roses on a grave
Like the breathing of a ghost
Plaintive in its counterfeit
Looking for its lost love
These words of regret
Mangled in the passing of time
Strangled by an irrelevance
That means more than this melody
And in the telling of the tale
These words slide one by one
Onto the cold tile floor.

Sam

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simply-green-502085I’m 59,961 words into the writing of my latest novel, and I’m just as excited over it now as I was when I began. There’s just something about watching the story unfold that’s even better than reading a well-constructed book by one of my favorite authors. I think it’s because even though I’m writing this book I feel like the book is writing itself, merely using my fingers typing on this keyboard to grant itself life and breath in this physical world. I am in awe of it, honestly.

This book started with the intention of not making it a mystery to solve. From the time I was little I’ve been fascinated by mysteries, by the Sherlock Holmes’s and the Hercule Poirot’s of the literary world, and I spent many nights tucked under a tent of blankets with my flashlight, parsing their worlds, trying to figure out who did it before the final reveal. Usually if the story had 80,000 words in it I would have guessed correctly by the 75,000 mark, but I would still read feverishly until the end because I wanted to see if I was right.

Nothing quite beats that uncertainty, then certainty, then holding of my breath to see if my certainty was indeed well-justified, if I had solved the mystery or just put all the puzzle pieces together in the most convoluted way. Luckily for me most times I had indeed figured it out, and I would pat myself on the back for it. It made me feel on par with Holmes and with Poirot, even if for just a fraction of a second, or consequentially the amount of time it took to open the next story and begin reading.

In my own writing I’ve always hoped to create world and characters that are identifiable but that are not cliche at the same time. It’s a delicate balance that I think the best writers have been able to accomplish time and again, and I admire them for it. While I don’t want to copy them I do want to emulate the ability of those authors to fashion characters and situations that resonate. That means I don’t need to write in the mystery genre to be true to my own style. In fact, my first novel is decidedly not a mystery, and I love how it came together organically, but I missed the mystery of it all. So my second novel was a classic mystery, and I’d like to think the surprise of the ending was worthy of my own expectations.

This will be my third published novel, and I realized that about 10,000 words in. There’s just something about the characters that ache to come off the computer screen and inhabit the world of ink and paper. I didn’t set out to make it a mystery, only to give my characters a depth and carte blanche to do what they wanted in the world I gave them, but they went places I couldn’t have imagined, and now — 59,961 words in — I finally know who to blame for events going the way they have, I know which characters conspired to throw the entire world into chaos.

And I have 5,000 or so words to bring it to a conclusion, so that my eventual readers, like me before them, will be able to try and prove that they too knew who did it, and why events happened the way they did. Bring on 60,000 words, and beyond!

Sam

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ST2771h-Heroism thesaurusAs a writer I love words. I enjoy utilizing and finding new words, but I’m also quite fond of certain words I’ve been using since I was in grade school. I call them my go-to words because I often go to them when I want to make a point, or when I’m stuck on something that is difficult to get past. But when I’m writing for an audience I spend a lot of time and focus on making sure I don’t repeat myself too often, that I mix it up so that I sound fresh instead of stale. That’s part of the organic nature of writing for an audience that someone who writes only for themselves never cares about.

When I write I like to keep a thesaurus handy. I’ve had one since junior year of high school that has been thumbed through so much the binding has loosened in strength. Sometimes when I open it up it stays open, even when it’s not quite to the exact middle of that book. Often I try out new words like regular people try on clothing. The thesaurus is my dressing room for words, my connection to the new and the fantastic, and I treasure it as much as I do the writing itself. Because it is a key part to the process.

“Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic.”

It’s funny, though, because when I first heard of a thesaurus I was dying to get one. It was the new age of online computing in the early 90s, and when I used Word Perfect I found that I could highlight words and change them. The glory of the online thesaurus, at least as utilized by Word Perfect, allowed me to insert synonyms for words I tended to use often, and I took full advantage of it from the start. I had written a short story about a benign superhero that I felt needed some spicing up, so I went back into the manuscript and I used the thesaurus on every single word besides “and,” “the,” and “a.” When I was done the results were indeed laughable, but they sparked my creativity.

ThesaurusRex3I think I still have a copy of both manuscripts around here somewhere, the one I first wrote, and the one that the thesaurus chewed up and spit out. Most of the syntax on the second copy is vague and/or ludicrous because there aren’t many “true” synonyms to words, and it made no sense. But it sounds high-brow to people who don’t know what the words mean, and I realized that’s what many writers do today. They sound just like thesauruses, their words used to show off their vocabulary instead of to enhance their story, which is the exact opposite of what should happen.

So, even though I use my thesaurus a lot, to research and to find new words, I rarely take those words out on a play date, getting them dirty in the sandbox of my writing, because I know the power of the writer’s mind, and I know the power of word choice. I like to roll those new words around in my mouth, to try and parse them out, to see if they will fit without overwhelming the rest of the words I already have on the screen, and I only use them if they enhance without taking away the focus of those words. Because for me it’s all about the intent. It’s all about making something that takes a lot of time and effort seem effortless.

I love my thesaurus because it helps me keep my possibilities open without forcing me into something I don’t want to do. I just need to remember that tools are tools for a reason, and they’re only helpful when we know when to use them. And when not.

Sam

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image

“My one saving grace as a writer is that, if I’m having trouble with the novel I’m writing, I write something else, a poem or a short story. I try to avoid writer’s block by always writing something.” ~Jess Walter

That’s me in a nutshell. When someone asks me, “What are you writing?” I can honestly tell them something new every day, at least these days, because while I have two novels that are pretty far along, I am also writing so much else. I take the craft of writing seriously, meaning that I spend as much energy on a one sentence character profile as I do on what I hope is the end to the great American novel I’m currently working on.

And I’ve never had writer’s block (knock on wood).

But where do I do all of this writing? On my computer I’ve christened the “Black Lab,” after one of my favorite bands. I’m often listening to them while I write so it’s also fitting that it is labeled as such. Someone asked me the other day why my handwriting is so atrocious, and I’ll admit that my handwriting wasn’t ever a gem, but I just don’t do enough straight “writing” anymore to keep up any pretense of being able to put pen to paper. And yes, I’m old school about a lot of things, but when it comes to writing, whatever works is my mantra.

So I type everything, and I back up everything (usually multiple ways and in multiple locations). I learned the hard way that sometimes words get lost in the ether when there aren’t enough failsafes, so I have several flash drives, and several external hard drives, and a lovely space in something called a cloud where I store and re-store my writings. I even built my own laptop using the Dell site to maximize hard drive space on the unit itself. Yeah, I’m taking no chances this time. (more…)

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Words

Words can get us into some serious trouble, can’t they?

poetry-words

Piecing them together is the hard part.

Have you ever been in a situation where a misunderstanding involving the words you used (or didn’t use) caused a major rift between you and someone else? And all you wanted to do was SCREAM what you were really trying to say, but they weren’t listening and then you got upset that they wouldn’t at least give you a chance to explain. It becomes a vicious cycle that can even lead to a separation of long time friends, of lovers, or even of family members. How can we learn to use our words effectively and efficiently so there are less of those misunderstandings?

WAIT

So often we just say the first thing that comes to our minds. I know I’m guilty of it too, but it hits my brain and it comes right out of my mouth. I don’t subscribe to the theory that if it pops into your brain it means that’s how you really feel. I think sometimes our brains are just jumbled up and they can’t process the information that quickly, and the default is saying something stupid. Or saying something we don’t mean. Or saying something that is unclear. That becomes the problem of not letting those thoughts marinate before trying to put them into words.

A friend of mine told me something very important today. He said that he used to say so many dumb things, and people would call him on it. He got so frustrated that he couldn’t seem to say what he really meant that he stopped talking altogether. Eventually he realized that in time, if he just shut his mouth, he was able to figure it all out and say what he really meant. It was great for me to hear that because too many people don’t take the time to analyze their thoughts and organize their words beforehand.

LISTEN

The other part of choosing your words carefully is actually listening to what other people are saying to you. When I’m involved in a conversation it’s easy to think all the time about what I’m going to say next instead of listening to what the other person is telling me. But if you listen to the inflection, to the cadence, to the words they say, and to the way they say them, it can definitely help you structure what you’re going to say in response. It’s always good practice to remember, too, that just because it’s the truth doesn’t mean it needs to be told.

For example, a friend of mine is going through a tough break-up, and what she needs is someone who is there for her, who validates her pain, and who offers a shoulder and an ear. What she doesn’t need is someone to keep bringing up her ex, even if it might be relevant to the conversation. Sense the tone, and the situation. Listen.

IN WRITING

Now we have this age of technology where we spend more time talking to people through the written word than through the spoken word. When was the last time you actually picked up your cell phone to call someone? Texting has become so easy to do because you don’t have to give a solid block of your time to do it. You can text someone, or several someones at the same time, all while doing a veritable smorgasboard of other things as well. But while it’s really easy to send a quick email, a Facebook message, or a text, it’s also easy to misinterpret meanings in those words we’ve typed out. And unlike spoken language, the written word is there for all time, in black and white.

Having our conversations be written ones also lends itself to misunderstandings because there is no inflection. We can’t listen to the way the other person “said” their words, and that makes for a lot of possible issues. I wish there was a series of something like voicemails where we can record a quick message and instantly send it to each other without going through the ritual of calling the number, letting it ring, and then leaving the message. That way we can have the convenience of a text message, but the other person can hear the way we said the words, which might help tremendously.

REFLECT

The last way we can learn to use our words effectively is through constant reflection on our interactions throughout the day. Perhaps you’re worried because the last text message you sent to your friend never received a reply, and you think the other person might have been offended by what you said. Think back on what you said, and think about how it might have been misinterpreted. Reflection is often the missing piece to the puzzle that, while it might not always clear things up, can open up a sorely needed dialogue that can rectify whatever situation might have been lingering.

It was this reflective piece that helped my friend from above realize he needed to just shut his mouth until the words in his head were organized properly. That’s probably the best advice we can all take when it comes to our words, because once they’re out in the world, they multiply, and they can take on lives of their own.

Keep your words to yourself until you’re sure you want them out there, and until you know they are coming out the way you intend.

“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” -Mark Twain

Sam

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