Saturday, June 16, 2007

How to Avoid Writing

Those who are compelled by temperament, neurosis, or outright psychosis to put pen to paper or to peck at a keyboard may suffer from an even stronger compulsion, which is to avoid writing. Why should this be? Perfectionism may be a factor. If I cannot sit down and produce verbiage on a par with John Updike, with flawless use of metaphor, plot, subplot, and complex characters, why bother? Yet if I do not attempt to write, I may feel even worse than if I do.

There are of course, myriad reasons one should not write. One must be prepared. One must understand, must formulate, must compose before putting thoughts on paper. One should know which of those little sliding things to move on the computer screen to get a hanging indent. Indeed, one should know what a hanging indent is, and when it should be used. Research such as this takes time. Should one launch into an essay or short story without knowing how to turn off that annoying cartoon paper clip that thinks it knows what kind of document you are typing and offers its help? I think not, and wading through help menus takes time.

Beyond the mere mechanics of writing, it is necessary to have in mind something to write about. Aye, there’s the rub. Should one play the role of the politician and pontificate on any topic whether informed or not? The answer is a resounding “No!”

Take this morning, when I thought I would sit down and write about a letter that my great uncle had written to his sister, my grandmother, early in the twentieth century. He ended the letter by saying that his scalp was itching because he had rabbits, and that my grandmother should be careful because there may be rabbits in the letter. Apparently, rabbit was a slang term for head lice. Is this common knowledge? Not to me. What a wonderful opportunity to research and avoid writing.

Back in the day, as the young folks are so fond of saying these days, research involved going to the library, riffling through card catalogues and poring over The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Those quaint practices have been rendered obsolete by the internet. It is interesting that as I type this essay on a laptop computer wirelessly connected to the internet through my home network, the word processing software puts squiggly red lines under the words internet, wirelessly, and even squiggly, indicating these words are unrecognized by the software and potentially incorrect. I can understand how squiggly may be suspect, as it is a lame word, but in 2007, internet and wirelessly should be accepted parts of the lexicon. Perhaps I need to upgrade from Word 97.

But I digress. Being connected to the internet, I go to the modern equivalent of the card catalog and The Reader’s Guide—Google (another red squiggly line appears). I type in “rabbits lice.” References to scientific experiments involving the two species appear, but not too far down the list is a link to an article by P.J. O’Rourke published in The Atlantic in 2003. The essay is an account of his daughter’s infestation by head lice and includes facts he had gathered by researching the topic in the New England Journal of Medicine and other sources. One of his sources was The American Thesaurus of Slang, published in the 1940s, which gave the following synonyms for lice: seam squirrels, shimmy lizards, and pants rabbits. I believe these sobriquets apply to pubic lice, more commonly known today by the trans-species appellation crabs.

Ah, now, armed with knowledge, I am ready to write. Or am I? Should I not go to the primary source myself? Of course. Perhaps The American Thesaurus of Slang is in the public domain and available online. I Google the title. Alas, no electronic version is available, but there appears a link to, which tells me that a tangible copy sits on a shelf at the local campus of Indiana University, a tantalizing 13 miles away. Should I go? No, wait. In the endless list of links produced by Google is a review from a librarians’ journal. I must read it to know if it’s worth the effort to go on a quest for the book. The reviewer is ga-ga over the book. I must have it, but I don’t have checkout privileges at the university. I go to the public library catalog online. They don’t have The American Thesaurus of Slang, but they have a copy of the more recently published Thesaurus of American Slang. Maybe that’s close enough. Another blessed respite from writing calls to me. I could drive to the library, find the book, perhaps browse the CDs in the Sights and Sounds section, maybe read a magazine. No, I think, I must write.

But first, I’ll see if a copy of the older book is for sale. After all, any writer worth his salt should have his own copy of this invaluable reference. A search at reveals that the book is out of print, but a few used copies are available, ranging in price from less than eight dollars to more than a hundred, depending on condition. Thirty to fifty dollars would buy a copy in good condition. Hmmm, have to think about it.

And so, I can arise from the keyboard with all the pride of George W. Bush when he stood in a flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier and declared an end to major combat in Iraq four years ago. Mission accomplished! I have avoided writing—sort of.


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