Tag Archives: imagination

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.


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!

Euphemisms and Doublespeak: Here to serve you

Sometimes, my work space looks like this:

desk and tables covered with books and notes

Creativity at work

The space is like a notepad version of “Where’s Waldo.” Find the stationery with the story brainstorming list on it. Go ahead, take your time.

I call what you see here “creative chaos.”

What you can’t see in the picture is a lot of the floor. The floor gets very creative. At the epicenter of the creativity you can usually find my chair, unless it’s been a breezy day.

Merriam-Webster defines a “euphemism” as follows: “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant; also: the expression so substituted.” The word comes from the Greek euphēmismos, basically, speech that sounds good.

Another (accurate) description of my work space is, sometimes: an unholy mess. But that doesn’t sound nearly as nice as creative chaos. A good friend of mine used to joke about her messy room by plucking a desired item from an otherwise indistinguishable heap on the first try and announcing: “there’s a method to my madness.” I like that. The statement suggests intent. A plan. Decision-making.

As a writer, I like “creative chaos” for additional reasons. The phrase conveys dashes of artistry, productivity, and a possible relationship to cosmological Big Bang ideas. All very nice, indeed. My creative chaos underlines the fact that I am very busy and important (thanks, Bridget Jones).

Euphemisms are great. Politicians and corporations use them a lot. My favorite corporate-related euphemism comes up all the time in the avaricious consumerist holiday season replacing Christmas every year. If you turn on the radio or your TV, or the YouTube video you are trying to watch gets hijacked by some ad, you’ll hear a version of this doublespeak. It goes something like this:

“Do you like to SAVE? Shop XYZ Company this holiday season!”

No one has yet clarified for me how purchasing something involves simultaneously saving my money. But maybe that’s why I’ve never had more than one credit card.

Job descriptions are great for euphemisms, too. Here are a few, along with their real-world translations, that make the rounds occasionally in an email forward (one of my former co-workers had the full list pegged to the corkboard above her desk; I love people with a sense of humor):

  • Competitive salary
    “We remain competitive by paying less than our competitors.”
  • Must be deadline oriented
    “You’ll be six months behind schedule on your first day.”
  • Must have an eye for detail
    “We have no quality control.”
  • Seeking candidates with a wide variety of experience
    “You’ll need it to replace three people who just left.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be recognized for my broad range of experience and ability to meet deadlines, than tasked with balancing a row of spinning plates while not earning much money.

The same kind of language manipulation happens a lot in the food space. “All natural” is one of my favorites. What does “all natural” mean? If you ask a flavor scientist, you might conclude that their answer has no bearing on your question.

I could write a lot about the ways we parlay language like a shield — which is kind of the point. Euphemisms are great. Not just for job interviews and food marketing, but also for Jane Austen and George Eliot. (What is the society in Pride & Prejudice if not one giant euphemism pond? Mr. Bennett: “I have not the pleasure of understanding you.” One sentence encompasses conflict, character motivation — and humor).

Euphēmismos — the tension between what’s said and what’s really meant. Which is the place that a lot of good stories and jokes come from.

Therefore, I deduce that I have some great stories coming out of this writing work space. If I can locate them in the pile of papers.

Is there a method to your madness?  Let’s hear some of your favorite turns of phrase below.

How not reading (and drawing, instead) helped my writing

or: Why you might not need to be a Good Reader to be a Good Writer

wall of art supplies and colored pastels

Add color to your life.
“Jacksons Drawing Supplies” CC image courtesy of Smallest Forest on Flickr.

You know what’s helped me do a lot more writing in recent weeks?


You know what else?

Not reading.

Also: going to the art supply store, visiting a photography exhibit, planning a DIY project to fix two of my chairs, and signing up for a voice and speech class.

Without planning it, I’ve begun bashing out 1,000 words or more a day — and without restricting myself to which piece I add the 1,000 words, I’ve watched at least three different projects grow. I’ve jotted a ton of creative riffs in my notebook and even… shocker… started keeping a journal again.

But this doesn’t make sense! I was contraverting one of the Golden Rules of Writing, which is: read! You can’t be a Good Writer without it, so the maxim goes. But sometimes, reading can get in the way.

It can be a crutch. We can use it as a distraction.

At least, I did.

So for a week, at the suggestion of the amazing book, The Artist’s Way, I didn’t do it. I didn’t read.

It was frustrating as all hell. I curtailed my emailing and my tweeting, and I didn’t allow myself to listen to podcasts or music when I got annoyed about something that I couldn’t read. I didn’t watch Hulu.

But what really floored me was the drawing thing.

Now, to quote Dickens: “Marley was dead as a doornail. This must be understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am about to relate.”

And my inner artist was dead as a doornail.

When I was a little kid, it’s true, I loved to draw, and I was always trying to get better. I wasn’t good at it, you see; I could tell that what I was drawing didn’t match the vision in my head. Still, that didn’t stop me, for years, from making daily pilgrimages to the back of my parents’ backyard every spring, to check on the progress of the crocuses coming up… and to sketch their daily progress.

What I really wanted was to catch them at the magical moment the buds appeared… or when the petals began to open. But somehow, I always missed that moment.

I haven’t drawn for twenty years: from the point I decided I should stop wasting my time and money taking art classes, because I would never be any good.

Before I did my reading deprivation week, I went to an art supply store. It was an idea I resisted. Going felt presumptuous and scary. I went because The Artist’s Way said so, and I was desperate. I hadn’t been to an art supply store in years. Those are for artists. What would I be doing there?

Yet I found myself in front of an array of sketchbooks, itching to get one.

Within a few weeks, I was at a park… with the 14” by 17” sketchbook I had bought (classic cream), a mechanical pencil and an eraser.

I, the non-artist, the one who couldn’t draw, was drawing a landscape.

I was there for over an hour. I think. I lost track of the time. It was windy, and cloudy, and my hands were going numb by the time I left. I had to clutch the edges of the notebook in a death grip so that the pages wouldn’t go flying all over the place. (Note to self: acquire large art clip(s).) I had my hood up so my hair wouldn’t block my view. I did a LOT of erasing. The page got smudged with charcoal, creased by wind. I gnarfed at each new gust with animal obstinacy.

reflecting pool at botanic gardens

Reflecting pool © AOC. All rights reserved.

I couldn’t wait to go home and write about it. After I did a little more drawing, of course.

When I came up for air and looked at the image, whole, I caught myself thinking: Hey, that’s pretty good!

This was revolutionary.  I’d been telling myself for at least two decades how much I sucked as an artist. Now, I was plotting to get out and sketch a few days a week?

Yes, I absolutely had to get home and write about that.


== ==

Have any of you ever tried reading deprivation? What types of non-writing activities have inspired you to write?

Farming the Imagination

Writing is a lot like farming.

Bear with me here. They both involve hard work. While farming requires a lot of physical labor which writing does not, try asking anyone who has sat in front of a blank page or an empty word processing document, writhing with the task of producing something worth reading, whether they toil. Metaphysical, mental, emotional toil, it is true, but toil nonetheless.

image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

They both require a hefty time investment, and a lot of attention and care. Holidays are things for other people.


There is no guarantee of results.  Despite every effort, the product may never make it to market. Bad weather conditions can spoil crops; illnesses can afflict farm animals. Editorial gatekeepers, agents and publishers reject work. If the product does make it to market, there is no guarantee that it will sell for a price that will cover the cost to produce it.


There is a lot of advance work. Before anything ever is ready to come “to market,” the farmer and the writer have both put in countless hours in the planting, growing, shaping, nurturing, and improving of their goods. In all that time, they have not been remunerated by anything outside of their own desire for success.

Both produce something from nothing.

I’ve had farming on the brain a lot recently. I’ve been following stories of small farmers across the country being harassed by government agencies for one thing or another (as if farming wasn’t hard enough on its own), and I’ve personally been trying to source farm-fresh goods for myself, now that I’ve moved most of the way across the country and depending on my previous supply is not very practical. So I naturally turned to the article in this spring’s edition of Women’s Adventure magazine, featuring three women farmers from three different regions of the United States.

By any measure, it is clear these three women love what they do, and they pursue it with a sense of purpose: to share their knowledge, passion, and results with other people. Their work doesn’t end on the field, either, as two of the three have off-farm jobs and the third runs a non-profit organization around farming. And clearly, none of their experiences were a get-rich-quick scheme.

None of these ladies had a boss. There was no marketing department, or a crop (pun intended) of interns to take care of the grunt work.

The same thing goes for writing, really, or any other creative endeavor. It fills me with a sense of purpose. I’m writing for myself, but I also want to share with others: the glories of the imagination, the advantages of information. I don’t have a boss; I don’t clock out at the end of the day. I don’t receive assignments from someone else. I don’t delegate. I don’t have conference calls to strategize with other people. I do it because I love it and not because I had an idea that I’d be able to retire to a private island in the Caribbean after a certain prescribed amount of time, and stop writing.

Retirement? It’s such an ugly word. Talk about boredom.

Like the farmer, whenever I start something, I have to start from scratch. I may stay up all hours to complete a project. Saturday and Sunday are just days – time that can be used. Although I can turn to others for advice, ultimately I am the one responsible for the flourishing of my creative seed. Eventually, I set up my little farm stand, and hope that someone will enjoy the appearance and the flavor.

There is not much that I can do if they don’t. Tinker with the recipe. Try different ingredients, different methods of production. And get the word out to more people.

If there is a run on the stand, I have to be sure to have enough to provide for the market. I don’t want anyone to go empty-handed.

Even before I’ve sold the crop, I’m thinking about the next one. I’m laying the groundwork, I’m getting the seeds, I’m fertilizing the soil. Maybe I’m sprouting in the greenhouse, and I can check whether it’s ready to go at any time. I’ve asked around, to see of other people might be interested in partaking of this new crop. This one here – this is just one season. This is just one year. This is just one effort.

And so we begin again, the farmer and the writer.  Rolling up our sleeves.  Making sure the equipment is in order.  Getting ready for inclement weather.

The difference is, the farmer is outside.  I’m farming the imagination.

The science of imagination

image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Recently, I received further confirmation of the power of the imagination, scientifically established.

A NY Times article in April outlined some neuroscientific research which demonstrated a greater stimulation of the reader’s brain than the act of reading itself would require.  Reading about walking, for example, stimulated the motor cortex; and it stimulated a different part of the motor cortex than reading about swinging one’s arms did.  Reading about smells stimulated the part of the brain responsible for the perception of smell.  There was no actual walking going on, and there was no perceptible smell in the room of the reader, but the brain sprang to life, accepting input from a non-tangible source.

The mind created a physical experience.

It makes me think the fMRI images produced during these studies were visual representations of the imagination at work.

I have always related strongly to any well-written story, and to the characters that live there.  Some of the best books have been physically nearly impossible for me to put down, because of my involvement in what was happening.  I have felt literally as though I entered an entirely different world.  Now, it appears as if science is suggesting that, from the perspective of my brain, at least, I have been brought into a different world.

It’s not just a figment of my imagination.

On top of this, studies have shown that readers of fiction developed better empathy, understanding of inter-personal relationships, and an increased ability to perceive the world from different points of view.

This as the result of something which is supposedly not real. Something which is invented.

Maybe reading novels and short stories should be a prerequisite for work in the diplomatic corps.  I like that idea.  World peace through prose.

The most amazing part of the Times article, for me, was the fact that these effects of reading also applied to children who were not reading themselves, but who were read to.  Listeners to these stories experienced the same enhanced empathy and relational intelligence as readers did.

To me, this is compelling outside evidence of something inherent in the story itself, and in the participation of the storytelling experience, which is special and incomparable.

Something essential.

It’s the central fact of art: what is not real is, sometimes, the most real of all.