I was reading the other day and came across a question posed to actor George Clooney, who directed “Good Night and Good Luck”. When asked how it felt to be the director he answered, “I’d rather be the painter than the paint.”
Sometimes I feel the same about words. I’d rather compile them than just read them. I’ve always had a vivid imagination, as noted by my second grade teacher, Miss Cotton, who believed my writing skills were beyond my chronological age. I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t her encouragement that nurtured my love of words. After all, kindergarten wasn’t mandatory when I was five, but Mom always read to us, so by the time I got to first grade, “Dick and Jane” was a cinch to read.
My first grade teacher Miss Gillespie had a trick for filling up those five spare minutes before lunch or recess. She called them “rain” stories. She would tell us a story and at one point, she would say, “And then it started to rain, one drop at a time”. This was our cue to begin to tap our desks, using one finger per hand, to make the sound of raindrops. The story would get faster and faster, our “raindrops” thundering…a cacophony of sound. Then she’d say, “And all of a sudden THE RAIN STOPPED!” On cue our fingers would cease to drum, replaced by the sound of our laughter. While the other kids enjoyed making noise, I honed in on the story…how she told it, the words she used, how the same theme could be used, yet changed. When I did my student teaching, I used that ploy one day. Worked like magic. As I looked around the room, I caught the eye of a little girl who was thinking. Hard. And I smiled. She was the best writer in the group and I knew she’d just filed away a mental note that had nothing to do with noise.
Second grade teacher Miss Cotton held contests that surrounded reading and words. I won both. The prizes? A copy of “Heidi” and “Black Beauty”, which I still own. And on it went. My 7th grade English teacher Mrs. Teer introduced me to Ogden Nash, who made up his own words to fit the rhyme. She was followed the next year by Mrs. Kitchen, who made us do the “It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power” page. If you finished on time, you were allowed to read the rest of the Reader’s Digest. I increased my vocabulary and reading speed, not to mention my knowledge of the world. I still read that section of Reader’s Digest, learning a new word or two every month. Last week I finally got ALL the words to that section right. Mrs. Kitchen would be so proud.
With my interest in words and reading unquenchable, I was able to enroll in an “experimental” grouping of English studies as a sophomore. Since that had allowed me to participate in advanced study, by my junior year I had a choice: endure an entire year worshipping at the alter of Shakespeare under the adoring gaze of J. Grady Locklear or take “regular” English with Mr. Elam, who looked a little like Icabod Crane. I chose Mr. Elam, who was tough because he viewed his job as preparing us for college. Every paper we wrote was graded by college standards and I learned what a comma splice was long before English 101. My favorite assignment still makes me laugh. We had to write a paper describing a simple task, but we couldn’t use any “technical” words associated with it. I chose “How to Tie A Shoe”. He immediately took the words “laces, knot, and bow” away from me. We had to read our paper out loud in class while he followed our “directions.” This took some creativity and I remember reading my paper to myself while trying to tie my shoe. No problem. The day Mr. Elam demonstrated, he couldn’t do it. In exasperation, he finally read my paper to me and I tied my shoe with no problem, following the directions. He started laughing. While I looked perplexed he explained there was nothing wrong with my instructions…but that as a right handed person, I had just tied my shoes left handed.
Mr. Elam’s patience and encouragement made English 101 easier for me than most. Halfway through college, I took a graduate level English course in Creative Writing…as an elective. When the professor found out, especially after noting that Early Childhood Ed majors didn’t generally teach what he shared, he had us write a movie review. Going into the theater that night, I ran into him coming out. When I turned in my paper, he grinned, saying he’d loved the movie and couldn’t wait to see my review. I smiled wanly…I hated the movie. I then learned about the power of words. Under my grade, [much to my astonishment, an A], he’d written, “Your argument was so persuasive that by the time I finished this, I hated the movie too.”
Now THAT’S the kind of review a writer wants to hear.
I am hooked on words and proud of it. It makes me look at things differently. Leads my brain to yell “Why?” I don’t need to know, I WANT to know more. Which leads to research, which leads down three more paths I never would’ve otherwise plundered down. I’ve learned more in life from just a simple glance my brain stored away as interesting than in half the classes I took in college. Just last week I barely remember noting in passing a character actor with an interesting profile who appeared in a 30 second movie trailer...for about 5 seconds. My brain logged it as “that guy just gets better with age, doesn’t he?” I thought that was the end of it. Wrong. The writing bug bit and since then, I’ve found myself immersed in Scottish poetry and listening to Andrea Bocelli sing in Italian. I know, that combination doesn’t make sense to you, but the journey is fun.
And enlightening. It’s amazing how words worm themselves into your head, especially when put to music. I’m beginning to sing in Italian. This didn’t hit me as odd until I was on my way to work earlier in the week. Driving through the county, sighing as Bocelli crooned “Besame Mucho”, I was amazed to find myself joining in on the chorus. About the time I really got into this duet, I looked up to find a DOT worker on a road grader lifting his cup of coffee to me in greeting. Luckily for him, the windows were rolled up. Now why do I have the sneaking suspicion that brief encounter will somehow creep into my writing in the near future?