Snafu! or, Should Writers Avoid the NYT Crossword Puzzle?

I’ve always been bothered by the New York Times crossword puzzle. Normally, I win at word games. I love words. I write words, read words, play with multiple meanings. If I were a dog I’d make myself a pile full of words and roll around, paws up, in ecstasy.

So why is the New York Times crossword puzzle so difficult for me and so easy for, say, my husband?

Now my husband is a pretty bright guy. Electrical Engineering degree followed by an M.D. But words…they are my greatest love. (Oh! Yes. Um. Of course. I mean after my husband, kids, other family members, and pets.)

Why do words fail me every Friday and sometimes even on Thursdays? Okay, I admit it, even the occasional Wednesday puzzle has a few empty squares. And, notice I don’t even mention Saturdays.

Recently I came across a Thursday puzzle where the clue was “a mess.” My penciled-in answer was chaos.

I have a particular love of the word chaos. I first came across the word ‘chaos’ while reading, and figured out the definition on my own. Chaos was, for me, a black roiling cloud that obscured the landscape and scattered and broke apart everything it brushed against.

When I left my home town of 1500 people and arrived at the University of California at  Berkeley, I tried out my beloved word in one of my freshman classes.

“It was chayoss,” I said to my professor and class. Blank looks. Finally I spelled it.

“C H A O S.”

“Kayoss” my teacher repeated.

“Oh, I said.” I knew that word too. I’d heard it. Kayoss meant a mess.

I discovered then that I had two vocabularies, one learned from living and one learned from reading. The same word could have different meanings in each sphere.

Back to the esteemed Thursday New York Times crossword. After much frustration, I puzzled out the correct answer to ‘a mess’: ‘snafu.’

That stopped me. An online dictionary agreed with the puzzle. One of the meanings of snafu is a mess.

I went to ink-on-tree-pulp dictionary. Snafu was listed right after ‘snaffle.’ Snafu was defined as “in characteristic disorder or confusion; mixed up as usual.”

I don’t quite agree with that one, either, but it’s better then “a mess.” (And yes, I do know the origin of the word, which I’m not going to repeat on my blog.)

In my head the word ‘snafu’ is related to ‘slingshot.’ For me they are sister words. ‘Snafu’ means you take aim at something, pull back the large rubber band, and when you let go all hell breaks loose. Nothing is as you expected. The rock hits a car window or gets stuck in the rubber band and snaps back into your face. Your carefully planned shot is ruined and life is a lot more painful and confusing after you executed the plan that was supposed to make life a little less painful and confusing.

Back to my super-smart husband. He went to a large Los Angeles high school, and took English classes that I can only dream of. I’m someone who learned vocabulary less in a classroom and more by reading. My rural high school had no college prep courses. By junior year I was writing my own curriculum.

So when the New York Times’ Thursday crossword defined ‘snafu’ as ‘a mess’ I finally connected the dots and understood why I’m struggling with these puzzles.

The dictionary in my head has often ignored even ink-on-tree-pulp definitions. Standard dictionary definitions are narrower, drier, and haven’t been tempered and expanded by the elation you feel when you pull back a slingshot or the confusion you feel on a dark cloudy night. Dictionary words are on-the-shelf clean. They were once lived by humans, but have been sanitized.

I’m slowly getting better at the New York Times crossword puzzle, and now find that worrisome. (Worrisome is my mother’s wrinkled forehead, a slightly sad look in her eyes.)

There are some obvious benefits to the puzzles; there are new words to learn (some of them ridiculous repeats like ‘tam’ that don’t show up much in literature). I’ve revived my interest in Roman numerals and have picked up some Greek.

But by learning someone else’s definitions, an ‘authority’s’ (police officer with arms crossed), I may be strangling my own, experiential, in-mind vocabulary.

Writing is a combination of precision (just the right word) and elasticity (exploring meaning). If I lose that careful balance between the two then, well…I’m just a dictionary. (Black book, dogeared pages, red underlines, sitting on the shelf behind me.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with this new realization. The New York Times crosswords are addictive. Maybe I’ll continue, but beat myself up a little bit less about empty squares.

Or maybe it’s the filled-in squares that I should be worried about. When I, finally, complete all of the squares in a Saturday puzzle, does that mean that my own metaphoric definitions have been overwritten?

Risk, Broken Bones, and Writing

In early June my son and his friend, both college students, were skateboarding on a Friday night in Portland. They chose a street that each thought the other had gone down before. As they picked up speed both realized they were in trouble. My son’s friend purposely headed into a wall of blackberry brambles. His was a good decision.

My son thought he could slow or stop. He came to a few minutes later with a broken collarbone and trouble speaking. His concussion cleared enough for him to ask his friend to call 911. His friend’s phone was shattered and the friend flagged down a passing motorist. My son spent the night on a gurney in the hallway of the emergency room. He said that being in the hallway was a good thing. People were dying in the rooms.

A week after the crash, my son had his third orthopedic surgery in four years. (#1 a collision off of a snowboard jump. #2 a fall while bouldering.) My son is doing well now. His full recovery from the accident was faster than mine.

I spoke to my son about his general risk assessment skills. So did his professor (my son was working in a lab for the summer). So did most of his friends. Even for the 20ish crowd, three sporting accidents requiring surgery seemed extreme.

Here’s the strange thing: part of me was envious of my son and his broken collarbone. (I can publicly admit this because none of my children read my blog.)

It’s been an incredible year for Maddi’s Fridge. It’s been a tough year for my writing.

I have been slow, tentative, and reluctant to take the risks necessary submit finished picture books to editors and polish my current novel. My inability to take chances is pulling me under like quicksand.

I know that some of you will say “Unknown steep hill, skateboard, that’s a risk. But what’s going to happen to you? Is your laptop going to fall on your big toe?”

You are right. I am under no physical threat. Emotional fears, though, cause their own damage. Fear of losing self-respect though failure, fear of ridicule (you wrote what????) and fear of rejection can paralyze even someone with a few accomplishments under her bra strap.

Then I look at my son who stands at the top of a steep hill with a thin piece of wood, four wheels, no helmet, and is excited and happy to see what happens next. My son is modeling behavior for me.

I don’t want to be as physically adventurous. I do want to emulate his excitement and the willingness to leap.

For the record: I am not advocating that you or any member of my family skateboard, skydive, etc. But I’m beginning to realize that extreme sports are so popular because they show you both the joys and risks all in the same moment. You overcome your fears and the reward (or occasionally, the punishment) is immediate.

You will not find me standing on a steep Portland hill with a skateboard in my hands. Hopefully, you will find me rebuilding my excitement and enthusiasm for writing. If I can rediscover that passion, I know I will leap

skateboard

And yes, all thanks to my son.

The Blog Bullshit Meter

What I want to talk about is over-revising your writing.

Oh. Even at my desk in the Seattle area I can hear shouts from New York agents and editors: “Nooooooo! Polish your woooork!”

Ignore them. Some of us perseverate on manuscripts that we need to release. This is a real problem for me. I’ll sit on a project, anything from a picture book to a novel, and only reluctantly send it out because I know it’s not perfect.

I’ll share my favorite quote here on perfectionism:

“Perfectionism is an ugly thing, all stiff and rigid with pursed lips and beady little eyes. No one likes perfectionism. It comes from a stingy, mean-spirited place and serves no purpose except to make us feel terrible about ourselves and anything we create….Perfectionism would have God recast every sunset and chide Mother Nature for her choice of colors. If everything were left up to perfectionism, nothing would exist.” — Judy Reeves

lake kachess great

And even though I’ve read this quote to all of my students, my revisions get to the point where I am not longer polishing my imagery or strengthening my characters. I am creating a different story. And this one I will also find fault with.

The only reason I pushed to get Maddi’s Fridge published was that I read it in front of 70 people and they ALL loved it. That’s a really bad precedent. How often am I going to get 70 people in one room to approve of a manuscript?

Logically I know that I should let go. Illogically I continue to write and rewrite the same stories.

Last week, though, my blog told me to stop messing around. Not in so many words. I was revising a post, “A Shout-Out for the Girl Scouts” that I’d been working on for six weeks. Yes. A blog post. Yes. Six weeks. And no, I still wasn’t happy with the shape of my writing.

Anyway, I noticed the number of revisions to the right of my WordPress page. At that point, it said 16 revisions. 400 words. 16 revisions.

If I believed that the afterlife came with a computer, or at least a pen and paper, maybe I could go on revising for that perfect story. But there’s a huge problem. Perfectionism doesn’t lead to perfect. Reworking and rewriting a piece can lead to stilted, dead language, and moribund characters. If you don’t allow yourself to stretch and make mistakes as an artist, you don’t progress.

What to do? Dot. Dot. Dot. If you’re looking for an answer to this problem, you’re reading the wrong blog.

One thing I will commit to: fewer revisions before I hit “publish” on my blog posts. This is good practice for me and the bullshit meter is sitting there keeping track, reminding me to let go. (Posted with only 6 7 revisions.)

The quote above is from Judy Reeves, “A Creative Writer’s Kit.”