Monthly Archives: June 2013

That’s exactly what I mean. Literally.

Creative ways of being totally factual with language

cat making a funny sneezing face

I literally don’t know what you’re talking about. — Image Silly Rus’ courtesy of GloriaGarcia on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Kids are amazingly literal when they are small. We have to be careful how we phrase what we say to them, lest we be taken exactly at our word.

At a certain age, I learned to use literal to my advantage. For instance, when my friend T and I were caught playing on the furniture, I exclaimed: “But we weren’t jumping ON the beds!  We were jumping OFF them!” This was literally true: we were using the bed as a launching pad for tumbling routines on the floor. I was very proud of myself for not lying and felt very smart (see here for other ways I am smart and self-aggrandizing).

Another time, when T was at my house for a sleepover, we had gotten up early before everyone else, but I didn’t want them to know. When I heard the creak of the floorboards above us that indicated someone was awake and aware, I told her to lie down real quick on the living room floor. She had no idea what I was talking about, but she did lie down, and so did I. We paused for a second, and I popped up like a jack-in-the-box. “Okay,” I announced. “Now if anyone asks us, we’ve JUST GOTTEN UP.”

T thought this was so hilarious she still tells the story now, decades later.

The same interpretation is at work in bad translations. Taking every word — literally and individually — and replacing it with the closest possible counterpart in the other language is a recipe for Japanese English translations. Okay, so that was a low blow. But can you imagine translating the following literally? “I’ll keep my eyes peeled.” How about: “waiting for the other shoe to drop”?

A good translation is nothing less than a kind of re-writing, a re-imagining of the work. Translation is poetry in motion. No language has an exact one-to-one vocabulary correspondence to any other language.

The literal trailers found on YouTube play on this concept (search for the movie of your choice along with the words “literal trailer” and prepare to be bemused). The trailers are a kind of spoof in which sequences from Hollywood films are shown without their soundtrack, while a narrator “sings” a description of exactly what is visible on-screen. Closed-captioning accompanies the text. My favorites include the trailers for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Twilight. Stories become sublimely ridiculous when literal-ness is taken to this logical extreme.

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What about you? Have you on occasion played literally with the truth? Did you create good entertainment value with this technique? Please share — I’d love to hear more stories about the literal use of language!

Organization vs Passion: List the benefits

hamster in a metal hamster wheel

CC image “Hamster wheel” courtesy of sualk61 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve been thinking a lot about lists lately, because my life seems to be filled with them.

I have to-do lists for the day, the week, the month. Shopping lists, story brainstorming lists, lists of essay ideas, speech ideas, blog post ideas, blog improvements, lists of birthdays, of appointments, packing lists, lists of items I need to repair on my car, lists of my student loans, and so on.

Sometimes I think the lists are a blessing. The most obvious benefit is an increased level of organization, coupled with a sense of control over my life. Often, though, I feel trapped by my lists. Like a hamster on a wheel, I am running, running… and seem never to be getting anywhere. My life has become a list — a list which taunts me like Sisyphus’s stone.

Let’s get organized!

The number one advantage to creating a list is organization. Organization is a big watchword nowadays. We all lead such busy lives, there’s not enough time in the day to accomplish everything. From pundits to parents, advice columns to job postings, organization is acknowledged as a universal good.

Consider the daily to-do list. A simple and effective maneuver, scribbling a to-do list takes only a few minutes, and serves as a reminder throughout the day. When we get side-tracked by unexpected events or need to prioritize, the to-do list is our friend. Groceries versus Pilates class? Vision statement or agenda prep for afternoon teleconference? Following up with Sue or Sam? Remembering what the heck was that important deadline this week?

Did you know that lists are good news for our health, too? Creating lists can help:

  • reduce anxiety by giving us a sense of control over what we need to get done
  • boost our brain power by using parts of our brain we otherwise may neglect
  • improve focus by keeping our immediate goal in front of us
  • increase self-esteem through the sense of accomplishment we get by crossing items off our list
  • organize our thoughts, such as when we are faced with a tough or complex decision

Health, stress reduction, meeting deadlines, and getting all the items we need from the grocery store. Who could possibly object to the clear beneficence of the lowly and workmanlike list!

Where’s the fire?

To-do lists, grocery lists, packing lists — all of these have immediate, obvious utility. They’re not very romantic, though. Then there is our least favorite list ever (at least according to pop culture): the New Year’s Resolutions (if you’re feeling adventurous enough that you have more than one resolution, of course. I am guilty of this. I am an overachiever. Scorn me). We start this list with grand plans and fanfare. We feel bigger than life. Bring on the world!

Yet how often do we actually complete that list? Maybe we’d be more accurate calling New Year’s Resolutions our “New Year’s Ideas & Suggestions Box.” Drop in the slip of paper with your idea. As time goes by, those little slips of paper become less interesting, even, perhaps, accusatory.

Making a list — for New Year’s or otherwise — can become a stand-in for doing what’s on the list. Too often, we start with a good intention, fall into a habit, and then just continue with it brainlessly. Making lists over and over can slowly drain us of our initial passion. When we began, we were excited by the subject, the work, the company, the project… One sheet of paper couldn’t contain all our ideas. Gradually, however, our vision has narrowed until we can’t see the horizon anymore for the slip of paper.

We’ve forgotten what got us started in the first place.

Regaining Control

Like any strategy designed to help us out, keeping a list can become a self-perpetuating monster. Whether our list is a fluffy Shih Tzu or a Great Dane, we need to remember who’s in charge. I’ll give you a hint: the boss should be the one holding the leash.

Lists are a tool. Like the alphabet. In order to write effectively, we need to know how to form the letters, how they sound, and the ways to arrange them to convey meaning. But the letters themselves aren’t the meaning — they are the vessel by which meaning is made clear. We write the letters, the letters don’t write us.

Don’t get trapped on the hamster wheel. Eventually, you will need to actually write that story, shoot those pictures, finish that telephone follow-up, pack that suitcase. If you find that you’re spending a lot more time on your list than your life, remember that the brain needs playtime, too. Play hooky. You may be surprised how inspired and enlivened you become as a result.

You might even have plenty more fodder to add to your lists!

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Do you keep track of aspects of your life using lists? Do any of your lists pertain to your creative projects? Let us know here!