My fourth-grade English teacher employed a list of words he called “D.N.U.’s,” for “do not use.” It was about a dozen words long and included get, nice, very, and thing. If he saw one in our papers he would flag it and make a tutting sound, although he didn’t always notice. The point, I assumed, was to make us think about the words we were using—to elevate our writing above the leaden defaults of a 9-year-old’s communicative needs.
According to the Wall Street Journal, this reasonable pedagogical technique has spawned a movement. And as with so many essentially humane causes before it, that movement has metastasized into a perverse and deadly totalitarianism. Its chief proponent is California middle school teacher Leilen Shelton, whose manual Banish Boring Words has, according to the Journal, sold 80,000 copies. Among the words Shelton has declared dead: said.
“You might use barked,” she said. “Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.” She certainly does. On the cover of Banish Boring Words—Amazon’s No. 1 best-seller in the Elementary Education category as I write, although that might reflect a surge of interest from the Journal story—is a crude cartoon of a boy thinking, “Instead ofsaid I could use … snarled, professed, argued, cautioned, remarked, cried.” A Canadian school district similarly offers a list of 397 “verbs to substitute for ‘said.’ ”
To which anyone who has ever had to read a slush pile or a self-published autobiography will thunder, cry, retort, rejoin, or fume: No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Replacing the word said with “colorful” or “lively” synonyms is a ubiquitous symptom of bad writing. Individual instances are usually redundancies: “I’ll never cheat again!” is recognizable as a promise without “he vowed” after it. But a procession of she explained and he chuckled and I expostulated—the reporting verbs that clog your dialogue when you follow the “never say said” rule—is worse, because they force the reader’s attention away from the content of the writing and onto the writer’s hunt for synonyms.
“There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” Shelton told the Journal’s James R. Hagerty. “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion.” The assumption here is that emotion is a desirable quality in every word of a sentence, that a rich word is always more appropriate than a plain one. You don’t have to invoke Hemingway, who made a fetish of plain words, to recognize that successful writing modulates the lavishness of its diction for effect, rather than cranking the dial all the way to maximum floridity and leaving it there.
Defenders of these restricted-word lists might argue that they’re an intermediate step for writers-in-training: First we’ll teach students to vary their vocabulary, and then to modulate their tone appropriately. The problem is that, on the evidence of all those slush piles, step two never takes place, and Shelton’s students go out into the world commanding and boasting and suggesting in the belief that they’re making their writing “more sophisticated” rather than less.
I once tutored a high school student who had written, in a biographical essay, the blameless clause “After becoming a teacher.” Her own teacher had “corrected” the phrase to “After achieving success as an educator.” This person was failing as an educator, as is the Powell River Board of Education and Leilen Shelton and everyone else who teaches this destructive rule.
I confess. I’m a notebook nut. I own dozens and dozens of them. Everything from cheap reporter’s notebooks to hand-crafted Italian leather beauties.
I wondered: Am I an analog dinosaur, or are there others out there like me?
The first stop in my investigation was, frankly, discouraging.
At first glance, a Starbucks on the campus of George Washington University points to the dinosaur conclusion. So plentiful are the laptops and tablets that they outnumber the double-mocha-half-caf-triple-shot-Frappuccinos.
But when I look more closely, I spot plenty of paper here as well.
Evan DeFransciso, a 20-year-old student, says he makes a clear demarcation: digital for schoolwork and paper for “my creative writing … short stories, poems, personal thoughts.”
“The stuff that really matters goes onto the paper,” he says.
Not just any paper. He uses a small black notebook with an elastic band and a storied past. Picasso and Hemingway used an early version of the Moleskine, and now you can too.
The Italian company that makes Moleskines — all 500 versions — is red hot, consistently recording double digit sales growth.
Moleskine notebooks have grown in popularity.
Oddly enough, the analog company’s success has grown in tandem with the digital revolution. In fact, when conducting market research, the company detected something even more perplexing: a direct correlation between sales of its little black notebooks and proximity to an Apple store.
That led Moleskine CEO Arrigo Berni to conclude that his customers are “not people who are clinging to paper with a nostalgic feeling, but rather people that have both digital and analog as part of their lives.”
Yes, he says, we live in an increasingly digital world, but we “still have a need for physical experience, for emotional experiences that digital devices and technology” don’t always provide.
Besides, he adds, for so-called digital natives, iPhones and other high-tech gadgets are commonplace. Paper is the curiosity.
Consider the case of Angelia Trinidad, recent college graduate and self-proclaimed gadget freak.
Not that long ago, she found herself adrift, professionally and emotionally, so she sought out a planner, a paper planner. None felt quite right so she designed her own.
“We went viral for a whole week, and it was insane,” she says.
Friends urged her to launch a digital version of her planner, but she resisted.
“I put my foot down,” Trinidad says. “I said ‘no apps.’ ”
She has nothing against apps — her smart phone is chockablock with them — but she finds paper more intimate.
“It’s this thing that is so intuitive. It’s between you and paper and a pen. It’s kind of meditative,” she says. “When I’m on the phone, it’s never meditative. It’s always task-y.”
Paper, Trinidad says, makes the abstract tangible, in a way that digital devices don’t.
“I feel there’s a huge need for paper in this increasingly digital world,” she adds. “I look at my planner and I think of it as my second brain. I look back at something on there and it’s like, ‘Oh, I wrote that.’ ”
I know what she means. As a writer, no work feels complete until I hit the print button and it’s on paper. Maybe, though, Angelia and I are both dinosaurs, albeit from different generations.
But some recent research suggests otherwise. Pam Mueller was a teaching assistant for an introductory psychology class at UCLA. One day, she forgot to bring her laptop to class.
“So I took notes, you know, the old-fashioned way, the way I did in college — pen and paper,” she explains. “I thought I got so much more out of the lecture that day.”
She mentioned this to her professor, Daniel Oppenheimer. It turns out that he had asimilar experience in a faculty meeting. He was dutifully taking notes on his laptop but realized he had no idea what people were saying.
Oppenheimer and Mueller wondered if there was something about paper and the act of writing that explained this phenomenon, so they conducted an experiment.
They asked about 50 students to attend a lecture. Half took notes on laptops and half with pen and paper. Both groups were then given a comprehension test.
Mueller attributes this unexpected finding — published in the journal, Psychological Science — to the fact that the “analog” note takers were forced to synthesize rather than merely transcribe. It’s a phenomenon known as “desirable difficulty.”
“Desirable difficulty is some small roadblock that is in your path that actually improves your understanding of a topic,” she explains.
This is, admittedly, a hard sell on college campuses, she concedes.
“Students find it hard to believe that more content isn’t better,” she adds, “that they aren’t going to just get it all down now and study it later.”
Mueller, though, has taken her research findings to heart. Whenever she needs to truly grasp a subject, she ditches the laptop and takes notes with old-fashioned pen and paper.
Does anyone else feel that when an opportunity presents itself, you’d be a fool not to take it? That it would be a “resume booster” and an experience that could be beneficial to your overall self rather than detrimental?
Lately, opportunities have been coming at us at every angle (you might argue that’s such a great thing!)–a part-time job here, graduate school student over there, oh wait, there’s another part-time job over here too selling cricket protein bars, another opportunity to be apart of a huge app launch, a facilitator at TEDxNewYorkSalon, a summer full-time position at a major banking company, and who knows what tomorrow will bring–but it’s when we were sitting in Washington Square Park that we realized we are all over the darn map!
For some reason, we thought of “Where’s Waldo.”
Maybe it’s because the nature of Washington Square Park on a sunny-80-degrees day is reminiscent of those old school Waldo games we played as a kid…hundreds of people, activities all around, objects, trumpet players, street performers, trees, even some brave souls taking a dip inside the fountain, yet ONE Waldo. It got us thinking…
When we are not focused and disciplined on doing one thing at a time like solely concentrating on finding Waldo, we don’t have our “eye on the prize” and are blinded at seeing what we really need to see.This leads to distractions, to confusions, and to overwhelming feelings–all of which we’ve been going through these past few months.
Things are just not going the way we want them to go. We’re not where we want to be. In fact, we are so frustrated thinking about ways to grow Renaissance Swag that we are looking at every opportunity that comes our way as the ah-ha! opportunity that gets us off the ground. We’re unfocused. But the Universe has a funny way of working, you just have to be open enough to see it. You have to follow the signs and listen to your intuition.
So there we were, sitting on a bench (one of our favorite places to be), overlooking the fountain and arch, listening to this young lad play the guitar to Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” and two people approach us, with a sign in hand saying “Made with Love” and a container filled with some baked goods.
“Do you have a minute,” they asked. We looked at each other, sighed a small sigh thinking, “How do we always get suckered into these raffle/fundraisers(!),” but we said, “Yeah, whatya got…” Well, let’s just say, twenty minutes later, we looked at each other again after they had walked away, this time with a smile on our face, thinking we just got “God winked,” as we like to call it or you could even say, “Waldoed.”
Their story about traveling the world for 8-months from places like Croatia, Norway, Sweden Egypt, and Italy to find homemade recipes “Made with Love” of all cultures was so inspirational, let alone mouth watering! You could see the love in their personality and the passion in their voice, so much that we recognized we had lost a bit of that sparkle ourselves. Comparing ourselves to others and trying to echo the top players in the blogging world are certainly big reasons why we feel our sparkle is fading. So it was refreshing to listen to both Leila and Anthony tell us their stories.
So here’s the scoop, for awhile now, we’ve had a vision to create a band of women looking to all sectors of thought, career, relationship status, age, wellness, culture, entrepreneurship and creating a story of Renaissance Women with 21st Century Swag – women that blend the old with the new.
This is not about pushing women to hold masculine roles contradicting their feminine inclinations, but rather, on the contrary, this is getting women to come back to their roots. We started contacting women to interview, but haven’t officially executed, letting those doubts seep in like:
“Who’s going to want to read this anyway?”
“So many other people are doing similar things? What makes us different”
“Will we be providing value?”
But then, a “God-wink.” Leila, the Co-Founder of “Made with Love,” said something that for anyone else wouldn’t mean a thing, but for us was a cue to follow what our hearts have been telling us all along…”you should interview my sister, she’s a badass woman, totally Renaissance Swag.”
ARE YOU KIDDING, ME?!?! Thank you, UNIVERSE!
You might say that was a coincidence. But for us, that was exactly the sign we needed. One simple word. One short encounter. And we are feeling more focused and driven than ever. We knew it all along, but forgot about it along the way.
The message we are getting across is this: when you focus your energy and discipline yourself to seeing the right opportunity that is in alignment with yourself then you will keep seeing the path you need to take, you will keep finding Waldo.
So what does this all mean and how can we learn from this?
1. PAY ATTENTION TO THE SIGNS.
The real problem of life is resistance. Resistance, as Steven Pressfield says in The War of Art, is “a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”
So by going on a spiritual path of nonresistance we are in essence, following the signs, the cues, the God-winks, and the Waldos. It is our ego that wants to tell us these signs are not what we are supposed to be doing. It is the ego that fills your mind with all those doubts and fears. But it is the self that knows what is right for your greater good. Don’t resist the signs. Follow them. You’ll get closer and closer to fulfilling your purpose.
2. TRUST YOUR INTUITION.
How many times have we heard that? Yet, how many times do we actually listen to it? Your intuition is there for you to help you in places of danger, telling you something doesn’t feel right. So too is it there for you when resistance comes knocking on your door. Resistance is louder than your intuition, but it can become weaker when we defy it and we start to listen. Listen to that little voice within, that gut response, that energetic pull. Intuition will always be there pointing you in the right direction, we just have to silence the honking that’s happening all around us and focus in on the whisper of intuition.
WORK and leisure don’t have to be enemies. The writing life is proof of it. New York’s coffee shops would be deserted if it weren’t for people scribbling and typing the day away. But when every seat is taken, the Wi-Fi is down and the only muffin left is bran, there are alternatives to being cooped up in the home office, and the city’s legion of playwrights know them well.
There is a place intended especially for them, for example — a former Lutheran mission on West 44th Street that has housed the nonprofit organization New Dramatists since 1969. Playwrights with one of the residencies that New Dramatists is best known for get private work space within the building, which is between Ninth and Tenth Avenues in the Clinton section. But Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., the group’s library, which seats about 30 at chairs and a communal table, is open to the public. Free coffee and tea (and sometimes leftover snacks) included.
In the 1980s and ’90s the library was informally open to the neighborhood people on weekdays, according to Joel Ruark, the group’s executive director, but in 2001 the room was renovated, and with it came formal hours. Most of the writers there now are theater makers. Playwrights who have written in the library include August Wilson and James Baldwin. Lucy Thurber (“The Insurgents”) and Lucas Hnath (“The Christians”) still do. On a recent afternoon Lily Padilla, an actress and playwright, poured herself a mug of coffee and settled into a plush club chair facing walls of scripts. “It has a really good calming energy,” she said. “I have ample material to inspire me if I want to take a break from writing and read something by a masterful writer.”
But not all writers seek a place made for work. Some playwrights with new shows this spring opt for hotel bars, diners, parks, piers, hospitals, rooftops or trains. They recently shared their favorite under-the-radar spots where being creative comes cheap. Use them to inspire your own search.
59 East 59th Street,
Upper East Side
Through April 25
I’m usually writing on the F train going from Midtown to the Seventh Avenue stop in Park Slope. It’s about 45 minutes. I get a lot done in a very short amount of time. I would say I get more creative output on the train than I do sitting at my desk. There’s a sense of urgency. The idea is rushing past and I have to grab hold of it. There’s something about getting those ideas down in that space that’s freeing. You could be playing Candy Crush but instead you’re grabbing hold of that moment.
One place that’s great in the morning is Croque Monsieur on 13th Street. They play peppy pick-me-up music. They have a quote by Anaïs Nin — “Dreams are necessary to life” — which gets you in the mood. And they have good Wi-Fi. If you need the caffeine and sugar, you get the pain au chocolat and coffee. If you’re really hung over, you get the bacon, egg and cheese croque monsieur. It’s greasy and delicious. If you eat that thing you’re good until three in the afternoon. Once you buy your food downstairs and you go upstairs, you don’t get mean glares from employees wondering why you’re still there. It’s still small enough that you can get up and go to the bathroom without taking all your stuff and losing your spot. If somebody came and took your stuff, a person at another table would speak up … maybe.
My preferred writing spot in the city is, weirdly, right in the middle of Times Square, the last place any sane New Yorker wants to spend quality time, and therefore perfect for uninterrupted writing. I always head to the lobby bar of the Hilton on 42nd Street, which is actually several floors up. It’s got plushy arm chairs right next to huge windows, and excellent bar snacks, if you don’t think bar snacks are gross. The other clientele tends to be hotel guests quietly killing time; no loud music, no fights over plugs, no getting distracted by other people’s conversation. It’s close to the theater district, which allows for undisturbed writing time right up to a 7 or 8 o’clock curtain. And you never, ever run into anyone you know.
One place I found that’s good is the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. The third floor has a music and art room where there are these great tables. The Wi-Fi there is the perfect amount of weak so that you can’t be on the web much. You can look stuff up but you can’t procrastinate. You’re surrounded by humanity that I find inspirational and beautiful and sad and complicated.
1681 Broadway, between 52nd and 53rd Streets
Opens April 21
I tend to write on subways. It changes with each play. With “Zhivago” it was mostly on the red line, the 2 or the 3. I’d ride from one end of the line to the other. There’s a stop called Gun Hill Road. For some reason I looked up, around the time when I was trying to figure out the opening of “Zhivago.” I thought, ah, gun. That’s how we begin the show.
45 Avenue of the Americas, at Dominick Street, South Village
I have a day job that involves writing ad copy. I write plays by nights and on weekends. But I also work on plays at lunch. I work in Greenpoint [Brooklyn], along the river, and next to the building is a park, the WNYC Transmitter Park, that looks across at Manhattan. What I’ve discovered is that I can’t get the thoughts to come when I’m sitting in a chair. So I go down to the park with a spiral notebook and write standing up in the wind, which is not easy to do, and try to write as many pages as I can. It’s my crisis spot when I know I’ve got to get some pages out.
‘Iowa’ (with Todd Almond)
416 West 42nd Street, Clinton
Opens April 13
One time when I was writing my play “God’s Ear” I was stuck. I couldn’t figure out a part. So I went to La Guardia Airport and I wrote there. One of the characters in it spends a lot of time traveling. I thought I might overhear something, or that I might get outside myself to watch people traveling. I also learned that at Weill Cornell hospital, at 70th and York, there are these rooms that are waiting rooms where you can plug in your computer and work. They are very private. There tend to be no one in them. I spent time there when I was with a relative. But then I realized you could go there anytime you want.
‘Bad With Money’ and ‘Patti Issues’
61 Christopher Street, at Seventh Avenue, Greenwich Village
In repertory through June 21
I’ve done a lot of my writing on these two pieces on the Williamsburg waterfront, near where I live. One spot is in Williamsburg at the North Side pier at North Sixth Street. I can see the ferries coming in and the condos and all the people. It’s the most fertile place for inspiration. I also like the new Bushwick Inlet Park, where there’s this weird sloping man-made hill. It’s actually the roof of a new building. The roof is diagonal to the ground and has these terrace levels. At the top of that there are a few benches. It’s a really spectacular view. It’s sketchy to sit there sometimes because that’s where teenage hoodlums go to smoke, so I can’t always establish my turf.
‘The Other Thing’
Second Stage Uptown
2162 Broadway, at 76th Street
Previews start May 12
I wrote some of it in Prospect Park [in Brooklyn]. I have problems writing in public on my laptop because I feel I’m on display. I go there when I can’t sit in my apartment any longer but I don’t want to be seen publicly writing. It feels so performative, like here I am writing my play. That’s all in my head because nobody cares in the park. I write by hand sometimes so it’s conducive to that. I usually go by the huge lake on the south side. I’ll walk until I find an empty area in the sun. Sometimes I bring my cat. Yes I’m that crazy person.
‘The Upstairs Concierge’
Goodman Theater (Chicago)
Through April 26
When I was single I used to write in bars a lot. Writing is lonely. Being in a bar made it feel a little less lonely sometimes. Now I’m married and I have a 3-year-old and I don’t write at night anymore. I spent a lot of time writing and rewriting at the Farm on Adderley [in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn]. Before the evening rush it’s usually a pretty nice, quiet, relaxing place to work. They wouldn’t kick you out. They have something called chocolate bread, which is this bread with chocolate baked through, and sea salt on top. It’s a good thing to be eating while you’re beating yourself up for not being better at writing.
‘The Biscuit Club’
338 West 23rd Street, Chelsea
Through April 25
My play takes place in a doggy boardinghouse. It’s comedy inspired by “The Breakfast Club.” It’s about what happens when dogs who don’t know each other are locked up alone in a boardinghouse overnight. I started hanging out at a dog park in Tompkins Square Park. We’d go down with the cast and I’d say, “You are such a poodle!” I started seeing people as the dog they would be. I had my own dog and I would bring him there and sit with my laptop.
All the rewrites on my play were done sitting at the Westway Diner in a booth late at night. It’s 24 hours. I get all the coffee I want. I’m always at the Westway for a roll and egg and bacon in the morning. I write very blue collar people. There are mostly blue collar people in that diner.