Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

Book Review of Word by Word

Word By Word by Kory Stamper

“Language is one of the few common experiences humanity has.”

So begins the Preface to Kory Stamper’s wonderful memoir, Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.

Hanging on Stamper’s personal narrative about how she came to be a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster and what that work is like is the entertaining history of the English words with which humans have recorded their knowledge, experience, beliefs and discoveries. This discussion of words also includes a discussion of linguistic prejudice, that attitude that self-appointed grammar police cop when someone doesn’t follow their[1]* prescribed rules.

You’d be correct if you imagined that dictionary editors spend eight hours a day in silent study, but you’d be dead wrong if for a moment you thought that reading about it would be boring.

Stamper writes with attitude.

That attitude arises from the little thought any normal person gives to the writing of dictionaries – including most lexicographers before they take the job. Before the internet, high school graduates received a dictionary before going off to college. I still have my red, clothbound Merriam-Webster Collegiate, which Stamper claims “is one of the best-selling books in American history and may be second in sales only to the Bible.” (In a footnote following this claim, she admits that this is more likely for having been “one of the oldest continuously published desk dictionaries around,” not because there’s any hard data.)

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate

I still have the 9th edition I took to college.

The Collegiate is a desk dictionary, not the big fat one that people use as booster seats for visiting grandkids. That one – The Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged – is, as Stamper notes, obsolete the moment it rolls off the press. Because even though most of us who use a dictionary do so to check meaning, spelling and usage, a dictionary is, ultimately, an historical document. It’s a snapshot of the language as it was during the ten or more years during which the lexicographers in a dingy building in Springfield, Massachusetts worked to update it.

As Stamper makes clear with humor and great stories, English is not static. Words can’t be caged on a page. How people use language changes all the time. And the history of those changes offer a glimpse into the history of those who use those words.

Word By Word is not just a terrific book about words, but also an excellently written personal memoir that tells the story about The Secret Life of Dictionaries, proving that any subject can spawn a compelling narrative when well told.

[1] Stamper explains that the singular “their” actually dates back to the fourteenth century.

alternate headshot

Deborah Lee Luskin is not ashamed to say that she owns about half a dozen English dictionaries – and regularly reads them.

Thanking My Students

Thanking my students

Thanking my students for their willingness to be vulnerable and learn.

Tonight, I’ll be giving an informal commencement address thanking the students who’ve participated in the memoir-writing class I’ve been teaching at the Moore Free Library for the past twelve weeks. This is what I’ll say:

  • Thank you for your courage to show up and bleed onto the page.
  • Thank you for trusting each other and me with your stories.
  • Thank you for your eagerness to learn about language and how to control it.
  • Thank you for your remarkable stories about the human condition, told in engaging language that awakens your readers’ interest and compassion.
  • It is this storytelling that equalizes us, and I’m humbled and honored by your generosity in sharing yours.

The class has been remarkable from start to finish: from when the librarian applied for and received a generous grant to support my teaching, to  tonight, when students will hold a reading for family and friends. We’ll also eat cake.

As with any good “commencement,” this is not the end. The class will continue as a Rosefire Writers Circle, where I will lead the group in automatic writing practice. In the RWC, we practice timed writing exercises designed to prime the creative pump. This process liberates writers to focus and fly, letting loose the unknown in the wonder of words. We immediately read this new work, bearing witness to the strange and wonderful stories that emerge. And we do so by practicing deep listening in a positive response method that engenders a synergy. Participants in these groups invariably write more, write better, and write with greater confidence.

We’ve blocked out Five Fridays, and opened enrollment to include newcomers to the group. If you live nearby and are interested, please be in touch.

Deborah Lee Luskin, photoDeborah Lee Luskin lives in southern Vermont and is housed on the web at her newly renovated site, www.deborahleeluskin.com

Personal Becomes Universal Through Research

Guest Post by Novelist Donna D. Vitucci

Book cover

Donna Vitucci’s new novel, Salt of Patriots, published on Earth Day 2017.

The answer to my question, How long does it take to write a book? is fifteen for the novelist Donna Vitucci, who has just published Salt of Patriots after fifteen years of research, writing and revision. In this guest post, Vitucci describes what motivated her – and kept her going.

Origin of Salt

At my mother’s wake in the summer of 1999, the reminiscences we’d heard through the years got dragged out and enlivened by re-telling. The time all Uncle Bobby’s hair fell out when he was working at Fernald. The spills and inherent danger of any other kind of factory, but Fernald was processing uranium. A different kind of plant, in the early atomic days, in the 1950s.

Fernald closed after dust collectors failed in the 1980s and leaks into the Miami Aquifer hit the press. A class action lawsuit helped shutter the plant and place it on the Superfund Cleanup List. A Public Information Center was established as an aspect of remediation activities—eureka! I’d write my family Fernald stories infused with true and accessible information.

Research

To write it, I needed to understand it, and I’m no scientist. I dashed daily to the Information Center, reading and trying to understand what Fernald workers did. What were their jobs? What might Uncle Bob have done once he clocked in for 2nd shift? What made his hair fall out?

I read The Atomizers, the Fernald company newsletter. I studied processes the Fernald scientists developed, and the chemistry and metallurgy that had men in various buildings turn out uranium ingots or rods. I sought the secrets and security, the rumors in the community, how everybody had a relative or friend who worked there, or lost their acreage, or got sick or died. Newspaper articles on microfiche announced the building of the “new plant” and how it was going to bring hundreds of jobs—which it did. The nuclear industry was in its infancy. They were playing with dice and hoping for the best in beating the Russians.

Interviews

Uncle Bobby was my eyewitness, my conduit to the past, to the plant, to the human aspect. At the time, I’d envisioned the book completed and published to celebrate Fernald’s 50th anniversary—2001. I really had no idea.

I questioned Uncle Bob: “What about losing your hair?”

“That was nothing.” Same closed-mouth attitude from interviewees and others beholden to their government, their employer, and their own promises.

“Loose lips sink ships”—caution right there in The Atomizer. I don’t believe the workers were afraid. I believe they were patriotic. I believe they believed the government wouldn’t ask them to enter a dangerous work situation. And as long as a man was working he was doing the right best thing–echoing Uncle Bob and dozens of Fernald employees in their interview transcripts.

Striving for Authenticity

What did Uncle Bob do at Fernald, what it was like, what were his buddies like, did they understand the danger, and did they care? I took notes; I had a binder of industry and government papers I’d copied. I studied these like I’d be tested. Above all, I wanted to write with authenticity, and I knew it would be so hard. Till then, I’d only written stories that emerged from inside me. This story would have to be, on many counts, outside of me. I would immerse myself in research until I was busting with the Fernaldia I ingested.

Writing, Revisitng, Revising

A year and half later, nowhere near finished mourning my mother, and now her brother, Uncle Bob, was dying. Feed Materials, as I called the book, was where I poured this loss, revisiting my loved ones, revising them, and being among them, seeing them so clearly in memory and then freshly relevant in the stories where I cast them. No wonder it took me 15 years to complete. Writing this book kept them alive, and I didn’t want to lose them twice.

Donna VitucciDonna D. Vitucci is a life-long writer, and was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize in 2010. Her second novel, SALT OF PATRIOTS, shines light on the nuclear industry’s early days at the Feed Materials Production Center (FMPC) by focusing on ground level workers in this rural Ohio uranium processing plant. Characters and events are inspired by her uncles, who worked at the FMPC, and imagined from hundreds of true interviews conducted as part of lawsuit remediation activities in the 1990’s. Donna lives, works, and shares the best of urban living with her partner in the Historic Licking Riverside District of Covington, Kentucky.

Deborah Lee Luskin has been a regular contributor to Live to Write – Write to Live since 2011. She blogs weekly about Living in Place, Lessons from the Long Trail, Middle Age, and Vermonters By Choice at www.deborahleeluskin.com. Hope to see you there!

Three Steps to Website Revision

I recently completed the three stops to website revision: Procrastination, New Headshot, Revised Content.

Procrastination

I’ve needed to revise the Writing Services section of my website for almost two years. During the previous iteration, I called myself a pen-for-hire. I do have reliable and lucrative clients who pay me to write for them, but the truth is more people hire me to teach and to talk, activities that build audience and allow me more time to write what I want. I kept planning to revise the content on these pages – as soon as I had a new headshot to go with.

New Headshot

Moose

Camera shy charismatic mega fauna photo by my friend Kathy Lena

Like most charismatic mega fauna, I don’t like to stand still for the camera, so I kept “forgetting” to ask my friend who’s a wildlife photographer to snap a new headshot. Then, I lost the names of the two professional photographers my hairdresser recommended. I put it off, cleverly combining this task with procrastination.

But on a leadership retreat in February, I met Kelly, someone I knew by sight and got to know better. I liked her a lot. It turns out, she’s a free-lance photographer. Even before I saw her spectacular portfolio, I hired her.

alternate headshot

I love this shot, too.

Working with a professional photographer was a revelation. It taught me new respect for both photographers and models. Posing is exhausting, but working with Kelly was a blast. She put me at ease; I trusted her; she encouraged me. We spent most of two hours and ended up with more than a dozen really good shots. She took so many good pictures of me, it was hard to choose which one to use.

In this case, procrastination paid off. Or maybe waiting for the right photographer wasn’t really procrastination. Maybe procrastination is really just another way of saying, Readiness is all.

REVISED CONTENT

Once the headshots were done, I doubled down on revising Writing Services, which now includes Manuscript Development, where I can help you tell your story, as well as Pen-for-Hire, where I can write your story for you. New sections on Teaching and Speaking are in the works.

The goal is to make it easy for  visitors to find out how to hire me to tutor, teach, or talk. It’s a work-in-progress. Ultimately, it will include some new headings in the navigation bar, and some changes in the sidebar, including notice of upcoming speaking events. Stay tuned!

My webmistress is Codewryter, who does the customized coding. She’s also teaching me how to navigate the back end of the site, which is surprisingly user friendly. Even though the site upgrades aren’t all finished, I’m pleased with how they’re taking shape. I hope you’ll visit and let me know what you think.

Deb wearing purple

Another great photo!

Deborah Lee Luskin posts an essay every Wednesday on a variety of subjects centered around Living in Place in rural Vermont. You can visit her at www.deborahleeluskin.com

Paid to Talk

Photo courtesy of Phyllis Groner

An unintended consequence of being a writer is being paid to talk.

Never shy about sharing my knowledge or opinions in print, I now speak them out loud to just about anyone who wants to listen, and I do it in a way that’s not just informative but also entertaining. And yet – just as in my opinion pieces – I challenge my audience to think about current problems in new and not always comfortable ways.

I have a collection of popular off-the-shelf talks, and a nearly limitless willingness to talk about anything about which an audience and I have a mutual interest. Give me a topic; I’ll give you a speech.

Currently, I have four off-the-shelf talks: Lessons From the Long Trail, about my transformative end-to-end through hike of The Long Trail when I turned sixty, and three through The Vermont Humanities Council Speakers Bureau:

Getting From Here to There: The history of transportation and settlement in VT

1964: A Watershed Year in Vermont Political and Cultural History

Why Are We Still Reading Jane Austen?

I make customized motivational and celebratory speeches to groups who want to hear what I have to say. After teaching reluctant writers, leading Weight Watchers, and raising three children, I’ve developed some serious motivational skills that can be translated into a celebration and/or call to action.

I’ve also spent the past ten years learning about restorative practices as well as Roberts Rules of Order, so if a group needs a facilitator, I’m good at making sure everyone in the room has a chance to be heard.

Of course, I’m always ready to talk about and teach writing and literature, from blogs to biographies. Earlier this year I lectured on Virginia Woolf for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and I’m currently teaching a grant-funded memoir-writing class at my local library. We’re having a blast.

Between writing, teaching, and public speaking, I’ve fallen behind on other tasks, like keeping my website updated, but that’s next. In the works is a calendar where anyone who wants to attend one of my public lectures can find out the what, where, and when. And for those who may be interested in a custom-made talk, just contact me.

At the end of the Long Trail, 9/8/2016.

Deborah Lee Luskin posts an essay every Wednesday at www.deborahleeluskin.com

 

How to Sustain Political Activism and Write a Book

Activism and Writing both take persistence and self-care.

Like at least half the American population, I’ve been distressed by current national politics. I went into a deep funk of disbelief back in November; then I became hyper-active, making phone calls and writing letters. After that, I needed a vacation from both work and politics. Now, I’m trying to find a sustainable way to continue to support issues I care about, like civil liberties, social justice, and ethical government.

Jen Hofmann’s Weekly Activism Checklist

Lucky for me, a friend forwarded a link to Jen Hofmann’s Weekly Activism Checklist. It’s been a big help.

As I read it, I realized immediately that the ways to sustain political activism are almost identical to the methods necessary for tackling a long writing project.

The Weekly Checklist

Hofman’s Action Checklist for this week starts with current congressional bills and issues that need immediate attention.

My writing checklist for this week includes a meeting, a phone call and a writing assignment for my long narrative about learning to hunt. This checklist helps maintain forward momentum on a project that will take at least another year to complete while I continue to write, broadcast, teach and talk.

These days, I also create a checklist of the political phone calls I will make:

  • Senator Leahy about the Supreme Court nomination;
  • Senator Sanders about the Budget and Healthcare;
  • Representative Peter Welch about the unresolved conflicts of interest between this president’s private businesses and public office.
The Rule of Three

I’ve written about the Rule of Three before: Choose three manageable and achievable goals each week.

Every week, I limit myself to three projects, and every day I limit myself to three tasks related to those projects. More than that and I’ll just stare out the window and not lay down the words. Same thing with phone calls to politicians. I can make three every week.

Three phone calls won’t change the world quickly, but if I make three phone calls every week, they add up, just as writing three sentences, paragraphs or pages adds up.

Worse, not making phone calls equals silence, as in “everything is okay.”

Everything is not okay. So I make three phone calls each week, minimum; more than that’s gravy.

Take Good Care of Yourself

You can’t write from your heart any more than you can change the world if you don’t take care of yourself. Self care includes measures to maintain your general health, sustain your emotional health and nourish your spiritual health. So do whatever it is that keeps you whole, whether it’s reading a book, sleeping, eating well, fishing, sky-diving, going to church, or some combination thereof.

Persistence and Self-care: They make a difference when it comes to writing book or changing the world.

In addition to making phone calls, Deborah Lee Luskin frequently comments about current affairs on her blog and on Vermont Public Radio.

Are Writing Contests Valuable?

blueribbonLast Sunday, I attended the awards ceremony for Vermont’s Scholastic Art & Writing Contest at the Brattleboro Art and Museum Center.

The art and writing on display was fantastic; no wonder The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are considered “the most prestigious recognition program for creative teens in grades 7 – 12.” These kids have talent!

The museum was buzzing with teenage energy as kids and their parents from all over the state saw their work hanging on the museum walls or read award-winning writing published in binders for all to read.

At noon, the crowd sat for the ceremony, which included exhortations from both Danny Lichtenfeld, the museum director, and from Roberto Lugo, a potter, social activist, spoken word poet and educator. Each in his own way, they told the kids to keep breaking the rules and fixing social and global problems they’re inheriting from us.

Vermont Scholastic Awards

Roberto Lugo

Lugo’s remarks were, well, remarkable: In a combination of rap, poetry and prose, he conveyed the story of his trajectory from urban poverty to academic and artistic achievement in language bordering on song – and received a standing ovation. Truly inspirational.

Then came the awards. Those earning Honorable mention were asked to stand; then the Silver Key winners; finally, the Gold Key winners came forward for a group photo.

This is where the event went sour for me. I wished all three groups had a photo op.

I attended the awards ceremony because this was the second year I’ve been a writing judge. Even though judges are given guidelines, which are very helpful, the process is still, ultimately, subjective. But more than that, I wanted the Honorable Mentions and Silver Keys to stand in front of the audience and have their photos taken in acknowledgement of their efforts. I didn’t want the awards to be quite so stratifying.

This has brought the entire enterprise of contests for artistic creation to a head for me. Even though my first novel won a prestigious award, I’m suspect of contests turning literature and visual arts into a kind of artistic World Series.

Scholastic Awards

Artistic expression is not a horserace; it’s neither limited nor competitive.

Artistic expression is not a horserace; it’s neither limited nor competitive. And while the Scholastic Awards are meant to acknowledge excellence and encourage youthful talent, I fear that the way in which we do so will backfire, on both the developing artists and writers and on the very essence of artistic expression, which creates its own rules, shows us a new way of seeing, and tells its own story.

Is making art its own reward? What do you think about writing contests and awards?

Deborah headshotDeborah Lee Luskin posts an essay every Wednesday at www.deborahleeluskin.com