scrabble in the wilderness

Over the Hedge (

Everyone has a favorite word. Right?

What else gives inspiration to the great Scrabble Masters but that moment in childhood when they discovered there, in those imitation wood tiles on their little tray, the letters of their favorite word? Maybe it was Fuggleman, or Derby, of Largonomics without the L. The exact word doesn’t matter.

What matters is the sudden burst of tears when told dismissively be a referee with no poetry in his soul that ‘You can’t spell Largonomics without the L!’ A sulk at the beloved letters on the little tray, an iron resolve, ‘I’ll show them. I’ll show them all!’

And thus a Master is born.

Wait, it gets better. Yes, there are Scrabble sensei. And yes, they’re just as amazing and wise and manic and their kung-fu counterparts. (So, padawan, with words good think you are, hm, hm?)

Our little heroes still have far to travel on the Way of Scrabble. It’s not just about spelling, the realize beneath the smart of their mentor’s dictionary. It’s not about the long words, they realize with humiliation at the hands of nearby Dark Masters.

It’s about down and dirty, getting as many points as possible by any means possible, and totally wiping the clock of the other players.

Ah, yes. That.

Maybe that’s why Scrabble Masters never have quite the same following as kung-fu masters. It’s harder to make scrabble movies teach good family values. That, and girls never seem to dig Scrabble Apprentices.

For most of us, choosing a favorite word doesn’t quite have such dramatic side-effects. Which is probably a good thing.

Verbal favoritism has received some attention here lately, as part of my ongoing blogalectic with Jenna St. Hilaire at A Light Inside. In her latest, remarkable entry, she said she liked the new term ‘webxchange’, partly because—unbeknown to its coiner—it has a web following already.

Maybe this tells you more about me than I’d like, but I’ll be sticking with her runner-up—blogalectic—for much the opposite reason. As far as I can tell, we’re the only folks using it. (Google it, you’ll see what I mean.)

That, actually, is the tension inherent in Jenna’s article. As writers—heck, as people—we are caught between earth and vision, moment and transcendence, space and time. How to write into that place, to ‘take hold of one without letting go of the other’? Jenna says it well:

[…] the trick, for those of us aiming at the stars, is to write a tale that is both within our time and transcendent of it.

That is a resolution of contraries if ever there was one. Our hot, passionate, fleeting time, caught up in fad after fashion after fling, disrespectful of history and therefore unable to learn from it, busy trying to immortalize itself in 140 characters or less per idea—this we must unite, somehow, to the calm, unmoving, deeply resonant truths that were true ten thousand years ago and ever shall be.

I think the rules, the real rules of writing, are those which allow us to accomplish that goal.

True. We must, as someone once said, journey with our head in the clouds but our feet in the ground. And, I might add, our face toward the stars.

I think for Jenna as well as for me—and others like us—we have at once a deep empathy with our own ‘passionate, fleeting time,’ but also a great disconnect. We see, even skate on, the surface tension, but sense its lack of depth. There is a dislocation among our generation, an unvoiced hollowness that cannot puncture the skittering surface of triviality and despair.

In many ways, the postmodern criticism of life has been well and good, but it has left us in a sprawling suburb without a downtown, a community with no center, that incites repressed despair—‘quiet desperation’ of a society and an individual unable to reconcile self and world, space and time.

Yet there’s also a great pressure to adhere to this slithering surface—to look the same, act the same, think the same. There’s a drowning man’s unquestioning fervor to cling to the nearest whatever, even if it’s dragging us down, or us it. To speak of things like, say, formality and hierarchy and ritual and confession elicits suspicion at best, hostility at worst.

How to speak and write into that?

Or perhaps this. Because I am that. I cannot, do not, separate myself from those around me any more than I will separate myself from myself. I am the fly on the slick of the water, unable to swim and yet unwilling to crawl.

I’ve learned with the rest of my generation that men can accessorize too, that, yes, change we can, that authenticity is real, and that helping others helps us. I’ve also learned with them that change inspires hate, that the gears of justice grind slowly or not at all, that authenticity can be little more than triviality, and that Starbucks is not the center of the world.

How to write and speak into that?

Jenna uses a word that’s both inspiring and troubling—‘unite’. It’s a political word, somewhat religious, promising better things to come, happy ever afters, peace on earth, and goodwill to men–and women, for that matter. It is what we try to do as tellers of tales, to unite the wild dreams of the imagination with the realities of a changing market, and the realities of a changing market with ‘calm, resonant truths.’

What about dividing? Telling tales of the sort we want to tell is often a sundering work. We are like Chesterton’s St. George, still flinging his spear into the jaws of the dragon, though the dragon be as high as heaven. To be of tellers is to be—to have an opportunity to be, taken or not—a voice crying in the wilderness, shattering the frivolous moment with the echoes of eternity.

This isn’t exactly basic rules for budding writers. Nor is it trying to spell Largonomics without the L. But it is the calling we heard, and still might follow, in the sudden, shifting moment when we saw in our favorite word the glimmer of an unending dream and wondered, ‘Why not?’


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