January 2009

Recently, Caroline Kennedy, who is hoping to be named to replace Senator Hillary Clinton as New York’s senator, was described as not being as articulate as one would expect as she answered questions for the press. Of note was her frequent use of the phrase “you know.” One pundit suggested that was just a “word tic” and shouldn’t be used to judge her poorly.

I thought about that as I visited one of my favorite websites, a blog by Cindy Swanson http://www.cindyswanslife.blogspot.com/. She’s a radio commentator out of the Chicago area and she’s interviewed me on air a couple of times. Once I had to drive to the top of the hill to use my cell phone because the power had gone out at the house and our cell phone only works when we’re not at home. She thought that was pretty funny. Anyway, she has a lovely voice (she does voice overs) and after one interview, she put the text of our conversation on her site, unedited except where she added “laugher." I happened to click on that link and reread what I'd said.

What Cindy didn’t do was take out my “word tics” and I had a few, let me tell you. The most common one was “Well, you know…” at the beginning of many of my answers. Wow, was that an eye opener and one to remind myself to listen to recordings to improve my clarity and articulateness though now I note I have something in common with Caroline Kennedy!

Because I’m also finalizing galley changes for A Flickering Light I’m aware of what I now call “text tics,” wordy little phrases that pop up that do nothing for clarity and add to the word count. I’ve been aware of words like “just” as in “just add to the word count” that I deleted or “she seemed to hesitate” with the operative tic word being “seemed.” I search the manuscript for those in order to decide whether to keep them or not. Did she or didn’t she hesitate? How would I show that she seemed to do it rather than that she did it? It’s a tedious part of writing that makes the work better of course and I try hard to make sure that’s done in the manuscript before I send it in.

Yet, with each edit, I find new text tics and I hate it when they happen so late in the process as when we’re getting ready to go to press. In this manuscript it was an excessive use of the word some as in “she put some flour into the bowl.” No, she put flour into the bowl! Another relative of some was my use of the phrase “some sort of” as in “He wondered if some sort of gift might make the difference.” No, “He wondered if a gift...” and even better would be to describe the gift specifically and what impact he wanted it to have. “He wondered if a necklace or a lapel watch might brighten her eyes.”

Even though I read each page out loud more than once, I still create new tics. I think it’s because our brains are so pliable that when I find one and fix it, a new one takes its place. It requires diligence or a friend to point these out to us so we can decide whether to keep them or let them go.

While walking down to feed the steers this morning in a world sunbeam-still, I wondered if I might not have some spiritual tics I need to address as well.

At the top of my computer I have t Ann Lamont’s phrase “You don’t have time for that” which I dearly love. It reminds me when I start to obsess about how bad my writing is or ask how I could be so close to finishing a book before I catch this or that error, that I don’t have time to listen to those harpies. But as I’m working I feel sorry for the copy editors who find that vinyl wasn’t invented in 1910 and the word I needed was linoleum, for example. I just learned this week that the place in my book known as Garvin Heights (and used by me throughout) wasn’t called that until 1918 and my book is set between 1907 and 1910. Before then it was Bluffside Park. Thank goodness for “find and replace” but I still had to let the copy/production people know and I hated making more work for them. How could I be so inept? Would anyone know or care?

I would.

I don’t have time for that, right?

One of my readers noted that I have a knack for turning challenges into positive experiences (our tax time and IRS audit mentioned in the last monthly memo, being a reminder of our bounty, for example). And that’s true. But during the past few months of illness and snow storms, I also found myself saying “You don’t have time for that” in a negative context. “You don’t have time to rest (which is what I needed to do to recover from pneumonia).” Or, “you don’t have time to take the dog for a walk” even though doing so is good for my blood pressure and Bo loves the jaunts. I thought of myself as lazy because I wasn’t doing all the things I usually do at Christmas time. I just didn’t have the energy. I cancelled some events disappointing bookstores who had ordered in my books; I decadentlly read other people’s books. (Loving Frank and The God of Animals, and The Chili Queen, all novels, and When the Heart Waits and Dreams of my Father, memoirs, are fabulous reads) so why do I berate myself for taking the time to enjoy what I love to do? My positive ticking had apparently slowed down.

There are other tics I think invade my spiritual life. Another is how often I forget that God really does love me just the way I am despite my flabby arms, belly fat, thunder thighs, droopy chins (among other items of anatomy). “You’ve let yourself go” my spiritual tic says. Instead of looking at myself in the mirror and trying to see what God sees or what someone else who loves me adores, I identify all the flaws. I do it so seamlessly that unless someone points it out to me (Jerry saying I’m deriding myself again), my brain will just take it in and let me pursue that line of thinking which adds nothing to my life and takes energy away.

I haven’t even replaced the sign below the light in our refrigerator saying “It’s not in here.” That sign marked the frig for years as a suggestion from Geneen Roth who wrote When Food is Love. The sign finally got tacky and I took it out. But it was a little word tic that kept me from putting it back. “Why bother? It’s not doing you any good or you’d be as svelte as Caroline Kennedy!

Why bother? Because I’m important. Being healthy is important. Taking time to exercise matters. Setting aside quiet time, journaling, engaging with others, praying, are all important behaviors regardless of our walk in life.

I need to say things like "You keep learning as you write so you’re not inadequate." I need to compare myself to those I love by identifying strengths we both share rather than diminishing myself by noting how slender she is or how successful he is when I’m feeling like neither. I am who I am and that’s not bad. In fact, that’s good.

So as part of my new year promise, not a resolution mind you, I’m going to be more alert to those damaging tics. That’s what writing is all about, helping us be more alert. Writer Lisa Sampson says she writes in part to let others know they are not alone. Vinita Hampton Wright notes that “waking up” is an important task for the writer and all artists. Poet Mary Oliver is saying that I think in her poem “Praying” where she reminds us that this living is not a contest but a “doorway into thanks.”

I write, I live, I love, I pray with the hope that doing so blesses others and honors my Creator. That's the promise I need to claim.

One of the joys of writing is having my publishers send me treasures at Christmas time (Books!) and one of them this year sent me The Tender Words of God by Ann Spangler. Her opening line is “I have never found it easy to believe in God’s love for me…” It seemed – no, it was the perfect invitation for me to focus more on positive tics, phrases that will bring me encouragement and clarity for the new year.

I wish that for you as well, that someone who loves you will bring to your awareness the spiritual tics that hold you back and that you’ll trust in the tender words of God to bring you phrases that strengthen, guide, nurture and expand your lives in ways you never imagined.

Now I’m going to replace that sign in the frig.

Have a wonderful January! I hope our paths will cross. Please check my schedule and don't forget to visit the guest book. You might be the lucky winner of a copy of Aurora!

Happy New Year. Jane