Category Archives: Stuff That Defies Categorizing

Mirror Neurons: Connecting Writer and Reader

Janet wondered how many of the students in her Monday morning culinary class were as hung over as she. Not to worry. She could get through this. As the skin of a perfect red bell pepper yielded to her knife blade, she asked, “How much Vitamin C–” Shrieks, her own mingled with those of students, accompanied the blade slicing into  her finger and coming to rest on the bone. . . .

Did you flinch? I hope so. Surprising, isn’t it, how words can affect us as readers. Language has the power to evoke empathy. We feel it not just in the physical sense, as in the above example, but also emotionally if we identify with a character or situation. So, if a character we’ve come to like and root for finds his wife in bed with his best friend, we feel his pain.

A somewhat controversial neuroscientific theory has it that our ability to empathize is rooted in specialized mirror neurons . The areas of our brain responsible for producing certain actions are the same areas involved in understanding others’ actions. In animal studies, specialized neurons fire whether a monkey reaches for a peanut or observes another monkey reaching for a peanut. Presumably the mirror neuron system works similarly in us humans, and we go monkeys one better: we can experience empathy simply by reading.

The next time you find yourself laughing, flinching, or crying  as you read, think about how the words and your imagination interacted to work such magic.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.

–Gustave Flaubert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hollywood Bidding War for Compromise With Sin

Rumors floating for weeks have just been confirmed: Compromise With Sin, the debut historical novel by Leanna Englert, is at the center of a fierce Hollywood bidding war. Said to be vying for the rights are Reese Witherspoon, Oprah, Steven Spielberg, Sheldon Shackleford, III, Roseanne Barr, and Norman Grabowski.

The novel, set in the early 1900s, tells the story of one woman’s betrayal and search for redemption after her loved ones are tragically ensnared in her web of deceit. The story is set amid a fictional account of the controversial campaign to prevent blindness in newborn babies, and presents Helen Keller as a confidante of protagonist Louise Morrissey.

“I was recently asked what my wildest hope was for this novel,” Englert said. “I truly hope it will bring about world peace. Barring that, I’d want people to say, ‘The book was better than the movie.'”

Happy April Fool’s, y’all.

 

 

 

“The Embezzler’s Curse”

In my lifetime I’ve probably written fewer than a dozen short stories, mostly for my own amusement. Thought I’d publish one here.

 

 

 

 

“The Embezzler’s Curse,” by Leanna Englert

I’m squatting here in what used to be Gospel Bob’s double-wide. He ain’t here no more—he’s got a new address at the county jail because of what he done over at the courthouse. Me and Bob used to spend a lot of time in this double-wide watching TV. Here’s where I got away from the wife and the projects she was always hounding me to do. He never had no beer, though, so when she really got to me, I’d go drink at her at The Thirsty Goat in Canyon, and afterwards, when my head exploded, Bob would say, “You sure got her good.” He just had a way about him, that Bob. But I digress. (Got that word from Wheel of Fortune.) The sheriff’s boys turned this junk heap Bob called home inside out—found some cash and Lucchese ostrich boots and a Rolex–but never found the jewels Bob bought with the money.

You see, me and Bob watched PBS is how I knowed where they was hid. Out here in the West Texas boondocks we wiggle the rabbit ears every which way, but PBS is about all we can get.

Gospel Bob was night janitor over in the Randall County courthouse—that’s where he did his embezzling. He pastored our little True Gospel Church for a dollar a year in what used to be the Washateria—it still smelled like soap so bad the wife couldn’t go there because she was allergic. It wasn’t no proper church with an organ and choir and hymnbooks. Some of us brought our own camp chairs, and the rest leaned against the walls where posters half-peeling off said: “No loitering. Washer, 50 cents. Dryer 30 minutes 25 cents.” The place felt more church-like after Bob got the accordion last year. Sheriff Gearhart’s wife played it, and the sheriff sang the hymns. They said he cried when he clamped the handcuffs on Bob, and I believe it. When I heard, I about cried myself.

I always liked Bob, partly because he allowed as how he was forty-five years old and got his sinning out of the way before he got born again. The wife didn’t like him, though, probably for the same reason. What she didn’t know is he kept me from running off, told me I’d feel some kind of miserable if I left and her weak heart gave out, said when I needed to get away to pay him a visit. That’s how we got to watching so much TV together.

He preached a lot about tithing—could make even us dirt-scratching farmers ante up come time for the offering. He walked the walk. He give most of his janitor’s pay to the church. He didn’t have a car. He hitched or rode a rusty old bicycle so small his knees bowed out. His only extravagance was Western stuff, like horseshoes and Navajo blankets he bought at flea markets and yard sales. His pride and joy was this great big wagon wheel chandelier from the old Stagecoach Inn fire. It was only burnt on one side. The chandelier, that is. The Stagecoach Inn pretty near burnt to the ground.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Ain’t no way a wagon wheel chandelier could fit in a trailer, not even a big old double-wide. You wouldn’t even be able to stand up under it. Well, Bob is handy. He knocked out the roof and raised that ceiling up so high, why it felt like the lobby of a grand hotel. OK, maybe I exaggerate.

Sometimes Bob would hitchhike to Amarillo. I swear by all that’s holy, I thought all he was doing was prowling the flea markets. I know for a fact that’s where he got the accordion. I never seen him myself when I was on the road—I’d of picked him up–but folks said he was a sight, standing on the highway with the dust devils and grasshoppers. He’d be holding a saddle or something and trying to thumb a ride.

Turns out this pious old bachelor was leading a double life with a bottle-blonde sweetheart named Rita over in Amarillo. Here’s how I found out. I seen it on the TV at The Thirsty Goat where they get the NBC channel pretty good. I was drinking a cold one and watching a Will and Grace re-run when the Amarillo news broke in, just when Jack was trying to tell his mother he was gay. I about fell off the stool when I seen Bob on the TV in handcuffs. Seems that Rita told the cops and TV everything when he dumped her. There she was, quite a looker, telling the reporter how Bob would come to Amarillo with a wad of cash, buy him and her some fine clothes, and they’d stay at the Marriott and order room service, the whole nine yards. They’d go around to pawn shops, and sometimes he’d buy precious gems, like diamonds. Never gave her any, she said. Sure, he didn’t. She said he stuffed them in his overalls pockets before he hitchhiked home.

It struck me funny when Rita said he’d whine about not being able to live like a rich man in his own town for fear of getting caught—he told her that was the embezzler’s curse.

Anyway, here I am in the double-wide. I bought it for a song when they auctioned off his stuff to pay back some of the money he embezzled. Told folks I wanted it for a workshop. Didn’t tell a soul about my PBS theory. See, Bob and me seen this documentary about this Russian czar who had a grand palace and rubles to burn. Besides showing off with paintings of naked ladies and gold faucets and priceless antiques, he had these jewels stuck atop the chandeliers where no one could see them. But he knew they was up there, and I guess that made him feel rich. I remember now Bob saying how silly that was, but he never said nothing about it being a good hiding place.

I held my breath when I first come inside that double-wide, my double-wide. I had to clear a path through all the junk so I could drag a step ladder over to the chandelier. I climbed up and sure enough, there they was—diamonds and sapphires and emeralds. Looked like Gospel Bob had routered out a groove in the wagon wheel so’s you couldn’t see the jewels unless you got way up high. I got dizzy standing on that ladder thinking about how rich I was. I climbed down, shaking like a whore in church.

Before I bought the double-wide and found the jewels, I used to lie awake nights stewing over how I could make the payments on my second-hand Ford 150. Now I thrash around nights stewing over what to do with my fortune. Sure, I could sell the jewels and buy ten brand-new pickups, Ford 350s, even, and I’d still be richer than sin. But I ain’t clever enough to make up a story anyone would buy. Everybody, including the wife, would suspicion the money was ill-gotten gain. I’d just end up sitting next to Bob in jail.

The wife’s on my back, after me to build her a cabinet for her sewing machine now that I got a workshop. Damn. That ain’t the worst of it, though. You know what chaps my butt? I can’t help Bob, even though I could have enough money to post bond and buy him one crackerjack lawyer like that Kardashian fellow who got O.J. off.  But I guess he’s dead anyway.

I sure do miss Bob.

Quotable

If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.

–Beverly Cleary

 

A Word’s Disturbing Origin

File written by Adobe Photoshop¨ 4.0

I had planned a different post for today, but it got highjacked by a thought that grabbed my mind and held it hostage. So bear with me, please.

Have you ever felt like exercising on a treadmill was torture? I know I have. But that was before I learned the disturbing origin of the word treadmill and came face to face with my own ignorance of a shameful piece of our history.

In the early 19th century, the treadmill, which only vaguely resembles its namesake, was invented in England with a dual purpose: to punish convicts and grind grain. Presumably if the punishment was sufficiently brutal, it would discourage the miscreant from further criminal activity.

The treadmill spread to the colonies and America where it caught on in prisons and workhouses. There’s an unforgettable scene in Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Invention of Wings. It’s set in the workhouse on Magazine Street in Charleston, South Carolina, where slaves sent by their masters worked the treadmill grinding corn. To punish the slave girl, Hettie, her owner sends her there. Hettie describes the treadmill as “a spinning drum, twice as tall as a man, with steps on it. Twelve scrambling people were climbing it fast as they could go, making the wheel turn.” Read the book.

Prior to its appearance in gyms and homes, the treadmmill was a device used by doctors to perform cardio stress tests. Who named it? Could the person who coined that word have been ignorant of its pedigree? Or knew it and didn’t care?

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.

–Elmore Leonard

Five-Dollar Vocables in Fiction


I have a decent vocabulary that includes a few five-dollar vocables I might casually drop if I should ever find myself at a Mensa meeting. Words like terpsichorean, which refers to dancing, and even better, boustrophedonic, which describes the plowed  furrows left by a turning ox (or tractor).

 

But generally in my writing I eschew such terms because as a reader, I find they pluck me out of the story and plop me back into the reality I intended to escape.

I’ll make an exception, though, for the novel my book club recently read: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. Set in Scotland, the story is about a socially backward woman who devours books she selects at random, and even though she’s not intending to sound erudite, her speech often has a textbook quality. So when Eleanor sent me to the dictionary a number of times, I wasn’t annoyed because I understood this to be an important character trait.

Some of the words:

  • friable: easily crumbled
  • rhotic: an adverb describing dialect in which the “r” sound is hard (e.g., American Midewestern, as opposed to Scottish)
  • badinage: humorous or witty conversation
  • rebarbative: unattractive and objectionable

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

–Eleanor Roosevelt

Banished Words–No, Not That List

It’s that time again. On New Year’s Day, Lake Superior State University released its 43rd annual List of Words Banished From the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use  and General Uselessness.   (You can see my post on last year’s list and the history of the list here.)

So, on to some of the 2018 words and the selection committee’s comments:

  • Tons–Refers to an exaggerated quantity, as in tons of sunshine or tons of work. “Lots” would surely suffice.
  • Impactful–A frivolous word groping for something “effective” or “influential”
  • Unpack–Misused word for analyze, consider, assess. Concepts or positions are not packed so they do not need to be unpacked.
  • Gig economy–Gigs are for musicians and stand-up comedians. Now expanded to imply a sense of freedom and a lifestyle that rejects tradition in a changing economic culture. Runs a risk of sharecropping.
  • Drill down–Instead of expanding on a statement, we “drill down on it.”

I have to agree with all the terms selected with the exception of “gig economy.” I think it perfectly fits the Uber drivers, retail workers, and others who string together a bunch of jobs to make a living without a safety net.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

It is often forgotten that (dictionaries) are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature.

–Jorge Luis Borges

 

 

 

 

Bannned Words From the Thought Police


It’s too early for the 2018 Banished Words List. New Year’s Day is when Lake Superior State University in Michigan releases its list of really annoying words.

But that light-hearted romp has been eclipsed by another list, one that bears the imprimatur of the  White House, which we can now think of as the Thought Police. According to The Washington Post, Trump has ordered the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to eschew (my word, not Donald’s) the following words in any official documents submitted for next year’s budget:

  • vulnerable
  • entitlement
  • diversity
  • transgender
  • fetus
  • evidence-based
  • science-based

Reaction has been swift. Mother Jones   has offered replacement terms, such as snowflake for vulnerable, deviant for transgender, and atheist for science-based.

I found an enlightening response from the blog Quartz which sought to put the terms in context by citing some statements from previous CDC budget documents. You can really see how scary the word vulnerable is, for example, in this from the CDC: “The United States remains deeply committed to safeguarding the American public from terrorists, just as we are committed to providing refuge to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.”

And from Donald’s favorite platform, Kavian Shroff tweeted: “Keep this [the banned words’ list] in mind the next time the Administration uses “free speech” as an excuse to defend Nazis.”

I can’t wait for the cartoonists’ take on this subject.

Quotable

Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.

–George Orwell, 1984

NovelWords Cafe Gets a Facelift

My apology for the repeated posts you’re receiving. Can’t figure out how to change/add features to the blog without publishing it. I’ve known for a while that NovelWords Cafe needed overhauling, mainly because the blog hasn’t kept pace with my publishing career. The need came home to me recently when I went to a public library’s web site and, among all the featured buttons, like “Library Policies, Library Calendar, Library Events, etc.” there was no button for the libraries catalog. I had to scroll down to the bottom of the page where I found a humble URL with a link to the catalog.

So even though I’ve had links to information about my novel, Compromise With Sin, there’s been no place to click and actually buy the novel. So I’m fixing that. I have links to Amazon and to a brick-and-mortar store. (If you ask your favorite bookstore to order my novel and they do, I’d be glad to put that link on my blog.)

Writing Cinquains

Did you know that Ray Bradbury began each writing day by writing a poem? I recently met a poet who, among other things, writes cinquains. I’d forgotten about this poetic form. I used to write them occasionally.

Such a simple form that gets to the essence of word choice. Each of the five lines has a specified number of syllables: 2, 4, 6, 8, 2.

“In the Scheme of Things”
Thinking
“First world problem”
Smacks me like a dope slap.
It’s a costly tooth extraction.
So what?

Quotable

You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.

–Ray Bradbury

A Year of Scrivener

For several years I watched other writers worship at the Scrivener altar before I joined the congregation. Several things happened to move me in that direction. I was starting my new novel, and some messianic folks in Austin Novel in Progress testified as to their Scrivener experiences at a tent meeting. (OK, I made up the tent meeting part.)

Before I go further, what is Scrivener? It’s a comprehensive management software program for writers of just about anything: books, screenplays, academic journal articles, etc.

Scrivener, the product of a company called LIterature and Latte, puts everything at my fingertips and allows me to move scenes around with ease. When I’m at a place where I can’t recall a character’s age or hair color, I just click on the character sketch I created and there it is. In that character sketch, I sometimes include a picture to refer to. For example, I have a character who resembles Liam Neeson, but I can’t conjure pictures in my mind, so the visual reference is very useful.

I could go on and on about the powerful features of Scrivener. After using it for the past year, I must say it’s been well worth the steep learning curve. Like any religion, Scrivener has its own language: corkboard, inspector, compiler, etc. My advice to anyone who decides to join is to consult the tutorial videos on YouTube. I found them much easier to follow than Scrivener’s own tutorials. For starters, I recommend “Scrivener: A Quick Review of How It Works and Some of Its Coolest Features,” by Karen Prince.

Basic cost of the software is $45. Academics and students get s break. You can download a free trial at Literature and Latte. 

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Gift Ideas

Writers and readers on your gift list? See my post from a year ago, “Unplugged Gifts for Writers and Readers.”

Quotable

A dogfight on a Denver street is more important than a war in Europe.

–Frederick Gilmer Bonfils

Happily Losing Yourself in Words

When Lolly Walter recommended a site called Online Etymology Dictionary, I consulted it a few times, mainly to make sure a word I wanted to use in my historical novel meant what I thought it did. That’s how I figured out that a scarf was not a woman’s accessory in Victorian times, something confirmed by my friend Elaine Jabenis who, among other things, authored books on fashion. (While a scarf might seem trivial to you, it figures prominently in my story, so I’ve had to do some scrambling.)

Not until I decided to browse the site did I discover its riches. I can get happily lost there, reading about how words came about and reading such pieces as Into the Words: an editing diary.  Here the site’s creator talks about working on dictionary entries, and I realize that letters have personality.

For example, he refers to RE as quicksand. “Any dictionary-writer would shudder at the mere mention of it. Crossing it risks sanity. The Romans concocted it, but the English got addicted to it in the 19th century and affixed it to literally everrything. . . .”

And “W is the insane asylum of the dictionary. Weird, wary, worrisome. . . . By the time you sort out wrack, wreck, rack, wreak, you’re probably ready for a padded cell yourself.”

It takes a little sleuthing to get a peek at the wizard behind the curtain. His name is Douglas Harper, a historian, author, journalist, and lecturer. You can read some of his writings and learn something about what makes him tick at a site called The Sciolist. (That’s an archaic noun meaning “someone who pretends to be knowledgeable and well informed.”)

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.

–Benjamin Franklin