Article by L.A. Ramsey
Of all the things in human existence to be ignited by-a skylark, Picasso’s man strumming a blue guitar, a flapper wobbling to the tune of the Charleston, a kid’s gap-toothed grin-mine was a small sheik.
It was somehow fitting that my inspiration would derive from a typographical error (it was supposed to be “a small shriek escaped”) I ran smack-dab into while editing a book.
We writers are crafty indeed. Male or female, we have to be connivers, collectors, coquettes, and charlatans. At least if we are successful we do.
The same goes for editing, for to be a good editor, one must be a good reader (meaning: a devout devourer of texts both arcane and profane). A writer, by the opposite token, need not be an excellent editor-something just now causes me to remember that F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t spell his way out of a paper sack of Cutty Sark, but that’s another story best left to the 3 a.m. of the soul.
Nonetheless, I have read enough schlock, 99 percent of it spilled from my own fingertips like soda on a keyboard, to know that being a good editor can only strengthen your writing. I can only imagine that despite his genius, Fitzgerald’s editors (not to mention Faulkner’s, Joyce’s, or Eliot’s; bless their tidy little hearts) would sometimes throw their hands up in sheer failure, such was the task of deciphering his hieroglyphs without a Rosetta Stone.
Here, however, I want to talk about the daylight yoga with words that we editors-contortionists all-perform, to the hum of our mantra of yearning for the perfidies of the English language.
My father would likely call out this piece for its being riddled with “75-cent words.” But that is no matter.
I would like to begin at the beginning, which I reckon starts right about at Juneau. And I don’t mean Alaska.
My wrestle with mama tongue, uh, I mean English, is perhaps best typified in the young dork carbuncular. That is, me in sixth grade. I had ascended to likely my greatest, if wholly bathetic, moment in life thus far: the county spelling bee. And there fell flat with a sloshing of precociously preteen armpits slickened with sweat.
“Juneau,” I stammered. “Can I have that in a sentence, please?” Oh, I know this one! j-u-n-e-a-u. I’ve got it! I paused. Something wasn’t right. All the adult faces that pointed at me were just askew somehow. Again. J-u-n-e-a-u. I know that’s it. I have to make a decision; man, everybody’s looking at me. I have to make them stop. Now!
What? I stepped down in confusion, much like an impeached president Nixon flashing “V for victory” and every bit as popular.
I had forgotten to uppercase the word, and, thus, didn’t capitalize on the opportunity to continue my inert flirtation with fame.
To this day, I kick my own backside-as I said, contortionism-around the room for missing that one. Who knows what yawning infamies I might have cavorted with? The weakly wrist of Coke bottle-thick (much like me at the time), glasses -faced Jason, the boy I had dubbed “asparagus lips” in a moment of anger.
To crank my kite down to reality for a moment, lest I get zapped by some editorial lightning (mind you, I didn’t write “lightening”; one of my pet peeves as a copyeditor), perhaps you also have a tÃªte-Ã - tÃªte going with the English language. For that, I can only offer my praise and some unrequited jealousy, I suppose.
Surely, it can only make us better. (I think I heard somewhere that what doesn’t kill us tends to have that sweet effect. And don’t ever call me Surely.)
As it stands, the craft of writing, humor or otherwise, dovetails elegantly if not eloquently with the exercise of editing and the relish of reading.
I won’t here regale you with other tales of whines, tongue-twisters, faux pas, neologisms, or the just-as-sweet roses that I’ve seen in texts or e-mails that have come across my editorial desk.
I can only advise this: devour words! Become a consumer of product labels, newspapers, magazines literary or otherwise, music lyrics, a love note fat pencil-scribbled in childish hand that by Serendip’s sweep lands in your yard.
Like me, you just might stumble on some sort of treasure in a “small sheik” you find singing its shriek there!
Bio: L.A. Ramsey is chiefly a copyeditor and fact-checker, but she still hears the winged chariot at her back, and, so, makes time to write while caring for her 7-month-old daughter, 30-something husband, and dog of indeterminate vintage. She has been published in 52nd City magazine, in local newspapers, and on a satirical Web site. She’s a sometime-blogger at www.zofolitblogspot.com.