Playing with words is fun as well as meaningful


So, I have come up with three questions. First, why do you write? Second, what inspires you? Third, what do you do to overcome "writers' block"? -- B.F., San Francisco

Why do I write? I write for the same reason people ride roller coasters: It's a rush. A flow. Movement and rhythm. It's sensory. Aesthetic.

Words, for me, are like being 8 years old and having a huge bag of Legos. Every day my dictionary contains the same English words, just like every day the bag contains the same Legos. But today I have the chance to assemble them differently! And that's fun for me.

Why do I write? I write because I love words. I hate jargon, but I love words. Yes, there are a lot of different ways to talk, but words matter. The right word can help us apprehend our lives in deeper, more intentional and more meaningful ways.

There's a reason the Hebrew verb dabar can mean either "to say" or "to do." The Hebrew worldview speaks to the power of words: "And God said (emphasis mine), 'Let there be light,' and there was light."

Words have a creative force. Until we say "I love you," there will be something about love that does not yet exist.

Am I a 'word snob'? Oh, maybe. OK, probably. Dammit, yes! But I don't think my demeanor is snobbish. More relentless and passionate.

I admire excellence and precision with language. I'm a harsh critic of the way American pop culture lazily conscripts the English language willy-nilly.

Americans tend to think of this -- when they think about it at all -- as another entitled "freedom." A creative evolving of language. Most of the time it's exactly the opposite. We broaden, distort and thereby cheapen the meaning of important words. This undermines meaningful discourse.

In the end, it's worse than merely me not understanding what you mean to be saying; you no longer can accurately apprehend your own experience with anything like clarity and meaning.

For me, there is only one dictionary: The English Oxford Dictionary. Why? Because it alone is willing to guard the power and meaning of the English lexicon.

If I step out on my front porch, and shout "Labeedoowitz" loudly enough, the word "labeedoowitz" will show up in the next printing of the Rand McNally Dictionary.

OK, that's hyperbole. But, I swear, coin the word "labeedoowitz" in a hit Broadway musical, and it will indeed be automatically included in the dictionary your son and daughter take to college.

I want to chase people to the dictionary. Regularly. I don't apologize for using important words when just the right word matters.

I love it when I hear a new word. I interrupt people, right there on the spot. I say, "Ooh, I don't know that word!" That's a rush for me. A delicious feeling in my brain.

Why do I write? I write because I'm a compulsive communicator who loves to think out loud. Critical thinking turns me on. I like building an argument the way little boys like Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and Erector Sets.

I even have fun when the argument collapses. My best friends will tell you that I flat out love being wrong. Yep, when someone puts a finger clearly and accurately on the flaw in my argument, my brain stem hums as if I'd just bitten into a vanilla creme chocolate. If your argument can derail my argument, then I'm like a little kid with a new toy! I'll race back home with your argument. Take it apart. Put it back together. Play with it. Integrate into my worldview, now changed.

Bring me a good argument, and I'll ask you to marry me. (Uh, metaphorically speaking. I am so off the market.)

What inspires me? Life. Love. Tragedy. Suffering. Redemption. Evil. Beneficence. Truth. Beauty. Moral dilemmas. Mystery. The human journey inspires me, in virtually any form or circumstance.

What do I do to overcome "writers' block"? Two things. First, I surround myself with deadlines imposed by others in authority over me. I'm inherently lazy. Not much of a self-starter. Without deadlines, I tend to sit around congratulating myself for thinking about all the brilliant things I could write. The thing that best "jump starts" my most creative self is the high expectations of others, especially if I have contractual obligations with them.

Second, I overcome "writers' block" by writing. It's like pumping the pump handle on a reluctant well. At some point I stop saying, "When I get a worthy idea, I'll start writing." No, I just sit down and start banging the keys, until a worthy idea shows up.

Originally published in View News, March 16, 2010.