House tidying, copy editing, letter writing

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How I spent all of my free time in college: Reading for pleasure. (Here, The Portrait of a Lady!) Circa October 2008.

Recent realization: I have a very consistent personality. Since I was a small child, I have been this way. Here’s the progression, as best I can chart it.

1. WORDS, READING THEM

It starts with words. When I was two, I would sit on my grandfather’s lap while he read the newspaper and identify letters that I knew. Letters were intrinsically interesting to me, as a baby, and I’m not sure why. I was read to continually by my family. I began memorizing full books when I was very little, but soon, by the age of three, I had taught myself how to read. (Mom says I pulled a random, unfamiliar book off the shelf while we were in the library and sat down and read it to her.) And so, naturally, I have surrounded myself with books ever since. Mom realized, when I was young, that time-out was an ineffective punishment for me. When she came in to let me out of my room, she was greeted by my solemn face as I pored over a book. “Oh, I’m not done yet, thank you,” I said dismissively. Words have always held a deep, deep pull for me. For whatever inexplicable reason.

 2. WORDS, WRITING THEM

Once I learned how to read, I then devoted myself to learning how to write. From the age of 7 until the present, I have kept a journal, mostly in handwritten form. As a child, I acquired scads of pen pals all over the country and the globe (some of whom I am still in touch with). I have always been fanatic about high-quality writing instruments and would hoard my good pens from the rest of the family. I took up calligraphy in middle school, and I am presently a calligrapher on the side. Loving words as much as I do, it has made sense to me that I should also love the process of physically writing them.

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Recent calligraphy on wedding invitation envelopes. Bluestocking Calligraphy.

3. WORDS, EDITING THEM

I was a persnickety child who loved rules. Applying this legalistic devotion to my love of reading, I cared tremendously for words and it hurt me when others did not equally care for them. (It still does. The large majority of writers on the internet, especially in the comments section, are constantly hurting my feelings, in a grammatical sense.) As a young girl, I was naturally good at spelling and at picking up the dictates of grammar (primarily through the natural osmosis of excessive reading).

I eventually went to college and got a dual degree in English (dreamy and fun) and journalism (practical and cut-throat). I thought I was going to be a reporter, because I loved print media and writing, but reporting made me extremely anxious, and I swiftly realized that I was not cut out for the competitive, high-energy demands of the job.

Around that time, I had an aggressive but insightful journalism professor who encouraged me to try copy editing. He goaded me to apply for a nationwide copy editing internship program, and I did. I got accepted and got to spend a glorious summer at the Denver Post copy editing and hiking. I had found my calling.

Copy editing, as I’ve written about before, brings me a lot of joy, and I’m really happy to be in this odd little profession. It’s a career for rule-loving introverts and jubilant nerds, and I’m delighted to be one of their number.

Quiet, simple home

4. SPACES, EDITING THEM

The leap that this personality bent takes is this: I seem to have a parallel approach to both words and spaces. I like to edit sentences. I also like to edit rooms. Or my wardrobe. Or other people’s junk drawers. Reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was a revelation. I spent about eight hours over the Christmas holiday cleaning out and organizing my parents’ closet, and it was fun for me. I loved it. The fastest route to my domestic happiness is a clean kitchen. I cannot abide visual clutter (even though I can get very lax about some things, like sweeping or dusting or vacuuming curtains, ever, in their lifetimes).

The epiphany was that my deep need for a tidy home maps perfectly onto my deep need for a tidy sentence. There’s a reason why I am this weird, obdurate person! It’s all very consistent. I understand that the reason I insist on Inbox Zero … is the reason that I can’t read a restaurant menu without itching for a red pen… is the reason that I compulsively make lists for everything I want to accomplish… is the reason that I read voraciously still… is the reason that I have to fold my shirts in a particular way… is the reason that an un-alphabetized bookshelf is anathema to me…

So. This is a poorly articulated question, but here it is: Do you find, like me, that your interests and hobbies converge into this seamless presentation of your (rather uniform) personality? In other words, the reason that you love X is because it’s really a very similar thing to your other great love, Y.

I’m sincerely curious to hear from you. I don’t think I’m alone in this…

A copy editor’s daydream

It’s easy to get lost in the microcosm of your job and think that the rest of the world should be operating within your work-day paradigms. Today, for instance, I was editing an extremely poorly written blog post, and instead of whistling while I worked and cheerfully improving the piece, my to-author queries just started getting more and more touchy; I was enraged that such a person could exist, someone with such a paltry ability to form a solid sentence! With such little knowledge of punctuation and the difference between an em- and en-dash!

So I had to stop. Put it away. Breathe. Realize that I live in a weird, underground world that is detached from most people’s everyday reality. A world in which editors obsess over language precision and the correctness of a word for hours. A world in which you strive not to betray an author’s trust by changing a comma. A world in which, if our jobs are done well, no reader even thinks of our existence.

Dutch braid, attempt no. 1. #braidselfieBeing a copy editor makes you super-attuned (almost presciently) to detail, but it also makes you an ass. I don’t know why a knowledge of grammar makes people self-righteous, but being a copy editor is a fast track to unbearable party behavior. Guion can’t go out to dinner without me making snide remarks about apostrophes and how most people think “portobella” or “portabella” is the correct name of the mushroom “portobello.” I’ll launch into a tidy tirade if you talk about how your English teacher told you that two spaces belong between every sentence. It’s amazing that I have any friends at all.

Because it’s a hard thing to turn off, this editing nature. I’ve been reading a memoir by a stroke survivor, and instead of thinking, Wow, this woman is amazing, and she has overcome so much, all I can think is, Couldn’t she afford an editor? What is this run-on nonsense? What is the deal with these double spaces between sentences?

Many of my coworkers say that they can’t read for pleasure anymore because of this curse. Or, if they do read, they can only turn to the lowest common denominator fiction (e.g., Nelson DeMille), fiction that requires only a marginal part of your brain.

I don’t want to resort to that, but I admit that reading Proust was a heck of a lot harder than it might have been if I’d had a different profession. Or Faulkner. Or Woolf. Or any of the writers that I deeply love and admire. Since Infinite Jest, fiction has been much harder on me. I gravitate toward nonfiction now. I don’t even read the short stories in the New Yorker; they don’t interest me. I don’t know if this turn away from fiction can be blamed on my handful of years spent editing or on David Foster Wallace, but something significant in my reading life has shifted.

I miss stories, but I crave knowledge. I want to know about everything. Reading 100 books a year doesn’t seem like enough. It’s a foolish endeavor, to want to know everything, but it’s never felt like a vain striving. Rather, I’d like to class it with Annie Dillard’s deep curiosity about the universe, spanning from the vast Milky Way all the way down to the mystical formation of a butterfly in its chrysalis. I want to know about all of these things, and I want to be able to tell these stories.

Goat moth. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I can’t pretend to have Dillard’s level of beautiful, boundless curiosity, but I can aspire to it. To know, to have precision, to be curious; I think of these as developing attributes of my small life as a copy editor.

I have, perhaps, always been this way; it’s just now that I’m realizing that my love of being a copy editor has fit perfectly within my natural design. Being a good editor means knowing right from wrong; valuing precision; internalizing arcane details of our complex and often nonsensical language; memorizing rules; ably recalling information about history, politics, and culture; possessing all of this knowledge and holding it at the ready, on a precipice of your brain.

I learned to read when I was 3; I enjoyed being sent to time-out because it meant I could stay in my room and read; I read straight through our set of encyclopedias when I was 7 or 8 (remember when you had physical encyclopedias? An alphabetized set that probably lived in your parent’s basement?). When I got to “D,” my mother had to explain the birds and the bees to me earlier than she expected, because I was confused as to why a woman would use a diaphragm during something called “intercourse.” I memorized the names of exotic animals and thought of them as my invisible companions. (Guion and I have been watching David Attenborough’s fabulous documentary series, “The Life of Mammals,” and every episode brings me this childlike glee when I can successfully identify an unusual animal. A tapir! A pangolin! A dik-dik! Heaven!)

As a child, I wanted all of the information (a history, a theory, a flood), and a large part of me still does.

I have often noticed that these things, which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly. I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering and, like the ancient mariner, fix him with a wild, glitt’ring eye and say, “Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?” The poor wretch flees. I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life.

— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

My list of bad words

Words and phrases that make me feel sick, that make my eyes roll up into my head with contempt:

  • Alright
  • Authored
  • Effortlessly chic
  • Fab
  • Foodie
  • Go green
  • Home decor
  • Hubby
  • I don’t do [noun]…
  • Impacted
  • Impactful
  • Masterful
  • Penned
  • Pregnancy brain
  • Queried
  • Read [as a noun, “it’s a great read”]
  • Slut
  • Tablescape
  • Vintage [noun, junk you’re trying to sell]

I think “impactful” is the absolute worst. I want to choke people who use that word. I can barely type it without wanting to scream.

How about you? Any commonly used phrases that get your blood boiling? Oh, and happy Independence Day weekend! Use your freedom as an American to respect the English language.

Half-hearted snax

I’m still feeling a bit swamped, so here’s the digest version of snax!

Pup links. You can read the dog-related things that interested me this week. How adorable. (Doggerel)

James: A Computer Hacker. This interview should scare you. This is from the project 100 Interviews, in which young journalist Gaby Dunn interviews 100 interesting people. It’s a very enjoyable blog to follow, but this story in particular really caught my eye. I’m inspired to change all of my passwords right now. And I’m glad I don’t have a space phone. (100 Interviews)

Around Home, Random Shots. I’m a sucker for dreamy domestic photographs. (Jolly Goo)

You Know What Sucks? Ugh. What’s sad is that I know so many people who think this. (STFU, Parents)

This Photo Made My Day. Mine too! You go, girl. (And baby.) (Marvelous Kiddo)

Annoying Words. A list of banned words from NY Mag editor Kurt Andersen. I concur! (A Cup of Jo)

Hormone-Free Birth Control. If only it were that easy. Or maybe it’s not easy to swat a stork from your apartment window. (The Hairpin)

President Obama Has No Idea What Year It Is. I laughed so hard over this. It’s just… delightful. (Daily Intel)

Goat Busters. Apparently, Charlottesville has this wonderful service for people with lawn problems. Temporarily hire a flock of goats to take care of your weeds for you! I would totally do it if I had some land to clear. (Scout Charlottesville)

Week 6: Writing and editing a short story

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Week 6: Writing and Editing Stories

Deep down, every journalism and English major just wants to be the next great American novelist. Journalism is a particularly helpful disguise for this rosy ambition, because it at least carries with it some tinge of respectability (although perhaps not anymore). You get a job as some underpaid slave to the newspaper industry, staying up till ungodly hours just to finish that paragraph-long story about city council that won’t even have your byline on it, and for what? For fulfilling the dream of someday writing your masterpiece and making it big.

I walked away from my university with a degree in journalism and English, so I guess I’m guilty as charged. I’ve loved words since I was practically a baby; according to my mother, I apparently taught myself to read when I was 3 (although I might have just been memorizing those Lady and the Tramp books). I remember my grandmother asking me when I was 6 what I was going to be when I grew up. I stood at the top of the staircase and shouted, “A WRITER!”

Today, however, I don’t think I’d call myself a writer. I am a zealous reader and work currently as a copy editor/publications assistant, but I’m not really a writer. I don’t believe that I ever could be a novelist, much less a great one, and so I half-heartedly start dozens of these short stories and then abandon them after I get discouraged. I squirrel them away on my laptop and don’t show anyone, ever. (Especially not my brilliant husband, who IS a professional writer and a very gifted one at that.) These stories that litter my hard drive feel like my shameful indulgences.

However. Thanks to encouragement from a few blind, loving souls (Guion, Angela, and Emily), I decided that my challenge for this week would be to give those stories some much-needed attention. I have no starry expectations for them. I still don’t plan on sharing them with anyone. But, for me, a large part of the joy of writing is finishing. I haven’t finished a story in forever. So, I think it’s about time.

A Fake Writer’s Diary

DAY 1. As we were cleaning up dinner, I asked Guion what he did when he hit a wall. He shared some advice from his sage professor, short story writer and affirmed genius, Deborah Eisenberg. Eisenberg says that when she’s trying to get to know a character better, she will write little adjacent stories that describe something that happened to that character. The little story never makes it into the larger work, but it is an important effort in getting to know the people that live in her pages. Tonight, I tried to do this with my stubborn characters. It felt a little bit like cheating, but I think it helped.

DAY 2. Today my lesson to myself was to write focus on dialogue, even if I was producing terrible dialogue. I was thinking particularly of Franzen, who I most recently read, and his impeccable grasp of dialogue. His characters’ conversations seem effortless and believable and yet essential to the movement of the story. I don’t know how he does it. One of the realizations I’ve come to today is that fictional dialogue does not necessarily have to be a verbatim replica of how people actually talk. Characters are, after all, naturally hyperbolic and we need them to accomplish things with their speech that we may not otherwise accomplish in real life. Today I’ve decided that I am going to be OK with that.

DAY 3. I wonder if it’s a problem if my protagonist is totally unlikable. Do all protagonists need to be sympathetic?

DAY 4. It’s really dreary to hear writers talk about their writing. I don’t think I call myself a “writer,” though, so maybe this won’t count?

DAY 5. Today I taught myself the lesson that there is nothing sacred about the beginning of the story. Even though this was the first thing I wrote for this piece, it does not necessarily mean that it must stay. Especially if it’s bad. Beginnings can change. So can endings.

DAY 6. Writing by hand is difficult, but I like it. I think I write better on paper and edit better on a computer. I didn’t bring my laptop on our Triangle trip and so I am happily relegated to the good old-fashioned notebook and pen.

DAY 7. OK, so I didn’t write today. Too busy. I will forgive myself.

Despite my somewhat sporadic attention to this task, I made more progress with this shabby little story this week than I have in months. I will count that as a successful weekly challenge.

Next week, I will undergo what is by far the easiest challenge of them all: To wear the same necklace every day for a week. This is largely inspired by Catherine, who would wear an accent piece with everything for a month. Except that she always looked great and I might not.

Happy weekend

It’s finally here, kiddos! I’ll be home with my cute, now freshly bearded husband soon, and then he is going to generously accompany me to the DMV so I can get a new license with my new name and state on it. I’m dreading going, but it will be good to get it done. And swap out that awful picture for a hopefully* less awful one.

To keep AFP Calligraphy more fresh and interesting, I’ve instituted a new category that I’m calling My Letters. In it, I will attempt to ironically chronicle my handwritten correspondence with a handful of beautiful women. Just a way to show potential clients some of the ways I’ve been writing lately, I guess. And to brag on my friends, each of whom has her own completely lovely and independent style. So, if you write me a letter, you have been forewarned. Don’t worry, though: I won’t post your full address anywhere or the contents of your letter, or anything like that. Just a corner of your stationery or a sample of your handwriting. Capiche?

Thanks for the book suggestions, friends! I am still debating my choice, but will let you know what I pick. I started Death Comes for the Archbishop today. I am told by my own notes on the front page that I last read the book in January 2005. I remember thinking it was very dull then, so I was hoping that I would prove my 17-year-old self wrong by falling in love with it. But so far… it is very dull.

“For in him, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” This might be my favorite verse in that entire letter. It is so beautiful and mysterious. I could think about it all day long. (Colossians 1:19)

I’ve had a lot of down time at work today. If you can’t tell. I revamped my reading pages up there. Because I could.

* I always think of my editing professor, Bill Cloud, when I use this word. He frequently reminded us that it’s often used improperly (e.g., it does not mean “I hope,” but rather, to do something in a spirit of anticipation; slight difference, but there is one). But then one of the editors at the Denver Post told me that everyone uses it the wrong way now, and so all we can do is accept it. So I have.