The PaperGirl Advice Column (and Summer Reading List)

posted in: Art, Day In The Life, Word Nerd | 27
Esther Pauline Friedman Lederer, better known as Ann Landers, in 1961. Photo: Wikipedia.



I have decided that this blog should become an advice column — but not the normal kind where people write to the columnist for advice.

No, this blog ought to be an advice column where I bring you my problems and quandaries and you give me advice! It already happens so often! Anytime I ask for it, I get great advice!

Whether I’m wondering about how to feel about public breastfeeding or the matter of having an emotional support animal or what book to start with on my summer reading list, the advice and counsel I get from PaperGirl readers is way more interesting and helpful than what I might dole out to you sitting here on my tuffet.*

Honestly, don’t you think that’s a fun idea? An “advice column” where the columnist is the one asking for the advice? Hilarious!

Thanks to all of you, my summer reading list is set. I didn’t tabulate exact votes, but it was pretty clear how things shook out. I am going to read my five novels in this order, as per your advice:


1984 byGeorge Orwell
The Goldfinch 
by Donna Tartt
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
Tender is the Night by Ernest Hemingway


It was pretty close between Orwell and Tartt, but I think it’s okay for me to start with the shorter work before I dive into the really long one. Henry James was definitely in third place, and David Foster Wallace and Hemingway were neck and neck bringing up the caboose, but I decided to let Hemingway come in last. He so often comes in first, doesn’t he? He’ll be okay.

Once I’m finished with Orwell, I’ll bring you my book report. It’s interesting timing: I’ve been thinking about deleting my Facebook account. I was going to bring you the case and — wait for it — ask you for your advice. Reading 1984 with that in mind, that idea about deleting Facebook, will be most interesting.

Thanks, gang.


*I’m not on a tuffet. I just needed to create a visual of some haughty Advice Columnist who thinks she knows everything and putting her on a tuffet seemed right. 

Let’s All Start Using ‘Viz’

posted in: Day In The Life, Word Nerd | 12
“Woman Writing” by August Macke, 1910. Image: Wikipedia.


I’ve learned over the years that folks love the “Word Nerd” posts on the ol’ PG. The copy editing post was a big hit, for example.

Well, kids, it’s a Word Nerd Day. And it’s a good one, too.

I came across an abbreviation a couple weeks ago while (re)reading P.G. Wodehouse’s “Joy In the Morning” for the humor writing class I’m teaching. I’ll put the sentence in below; all you need to know for context is that it’s the incomparable (and incomparably funny) Bertram “Bertie” Wooster speaking:

… it had naturally seemed that the end of the world had come and Judgement Day set in with unusual severity. But to me, the cool and level-headed bystander, the whole thing had been pure routine. One shrugged the shoulders and recognized it for what it was — viz. pure apple sauce.

Viz! Do you know this one?? I didn’t, but when I saw it, I decided that if P.G. Wodehouse used it, I must start using it, too, and liberally. Here’s the definition:

viz. | viz |
adverb           chiefly British
namely; in other words (used to introduce a gloss or explanation): the first music reproducing media, viz., the music box and the player piano.
Latin, from videreto see” + licetit is permissible.”


Thinking through this “viz” biz, I’m now aware that I’ve been using “i.e.” when I should probably be using viz.

In case you need a refresher, “i.e.” means “that is to say.” It’s used to add explanatory information or to state something in different words, e.g., “I love going on spa retreats, i.e., spending hundreds of dollars to have someone smack me with kelp leaves while I pretend that the quinoa patty I ate for lunch was totally satisfying and also I am trying not to get cucumber water in my eyeballs.”

[See what I did with the “e.g.” up there? Because “e.g.” means “for example”! I know. There are so many of those and now there’s viz.]

Here are some sentences where I practice using viz.

The main point of Mary’s lecture, viz. that caramel should be a food group, was misunderstood.

Several of Santa’s reindeer, viz. Dasher, Blitzen, and Donner, were total jerks. 

But the hobo had one obvious problem, viz. he was wearing a tin can for a hat.

Okay, now you practice. Well, if you want. Practice using viz. if you’re a Word Nerd like me. (And if you’re reading this, you totally are, even if you didn’t know that about yourself.)

Word Nerd: 5 Untranslatables

posted in: Word Nerd | 8
Tiny book. Image: Wikipedia.


I have a fondness for words. Does it show?

But there is woe in my life. This woe is real and comes from the fact that I do not speak another language. Though I do feel English is a boss language to know, I read somewhere that “speaking a second language is like having a second soul” and I want one!

I wanna second soul! I wanna second soul!

:: kicks feet, flops on floor of supermarket, wailing ::

Yes, I did take a few Spanish classes two summers ago; remember how I was, however briefly, “Chica de Papel“? It was fun, but look: If I’m going to learn a language I need to take a year off my life (or large chunks of it) and learn a language. One class a week for eight weeks, working in a workbook at Instituto Cervantes just didn’t take. Maybe I was a bad student, but I have lots of credit hours that would prove otherwise. I fear it’s immersion or nothing for me if I want a second soul.

So I make do. One way I make do is to continuously improve my working vocabulary, annexing both English and non-English terms. Which brings me to several untranslatable words that I would now like to share. These have been pulled from a couple different sources, one of them being The School of Life, which I have crowed about before.

Here are a few words from other languages/times with their definitions. See if you aren’t charmed, moved, and thoughtful as you read through them.

saudade (Portuguese)
A bittersweet, melancholic yearning for something beautiful which is now gone: a friendship from childhood; a great apartment; a successful business, etc. With this pain comes an attendant pleasure that we had such pleasure in the first place.

schilderwald (German)
A street that has so many street signs, you get lost.

pochemuchka (Russian)
A person who asks too many questions.

vade mecum (Latin)
A valued, even precious, book or guide that is kept constantly at hand for consultation; literally translates to “go with me.” [I see my diary as a vade mecum, for example!]

litost (Czech)
The kind of humiliated despair we feel when someone accidentally reminds us, through their accomplishments, of everything that has gone wrong in our own lives.


Perhaps I don’t need a second soul. There’s an awful lot to do with the one I already have.


Start Smiling: I’m Teaching Humor Writing in January

posted in: Word Nerd, Work | 3
Dog with a pipe, c. 1933. Photo: P.B. Avery via Wikipedia.


As most of you know, I have been teaching writing workshops and short-term classes at the University of Chicago’s Writers’ Studio for a couple years, now. My popular 4-week course in blogging wrapped up a few weeks ago and a group of my students are taking me out to lunch next week, which I take as a sign that they enjoyed themselves and learned stuff!

About a year ago, I was asked to pitch a new class for the winter term and I knew just what I wanted to teach. Here’s what I pitched and, indeed, what I’ll be teaching in a matter of weeks:

Humor Writing Survey — 6 weeks
Mondays, 10:00 – 12:30 p.m.
Jan. 8 – Feb. 19, 2018

Q: What do SNL writers, standups, New Yorker cartoonists, Thurber, Lebowitz, and Freud all have in common?
A: They’ve all spent a lot of time thinking about what makes people laugh. Now it’s our turn.

In this seminar/survey course, we will read humorous writing and respond to it: everything from TV scripts to stage monologues, from essays to short stories (and much more) in order to better understand the how of humor. You needn’t be a comedy-writing hopeful to take this class! This is a survey for anyone wishing to better appreciate — or emulate — the greats.

Expect guests: Chicago improv artists, standups, and other humorists with experience. You’ll generate work, too, and we may take a field trip.

Would someone pinch me? I get to hang out with a classroom of people interested in reading funny writing and talking about that writing? I get to assign homework to people willing to try and write, say, a piece of satire or burlesque? Yes! I do! I get to do that! And I also get to share all I’ve been learning about the history of humor writing over the ages. There’s a lot to say about it, I won’t be able to get to absolutely everything (and it is a new class, after all) but my interest and excitement is hard to measure.

The good news is that the class is already half full; the bad news is that the slots will go quickly. What if you miss it??

If you’re in Chicago and you can manage a six-week course on Monday mornings for a couple hours, you will not regret it. Because it’s going to be amazing. What a way to start the year, right?? Reading P.G. Wodehouse and excerpts from The American Bystander and talking about the difference between parody and irony?? Sounds like a good idea to me.

You can find info about the course right here.

I’ll see you downtown.

Words I Can No Longer Spell

posted in: Day In The Life, Word Nerd | 16
Spelling bee, 2011. Photo: Heather Temske via Wikipedia.


I have lost the ability to spell certain words.

Well, that’s not true. I could never spell “committment.” See? Still can’t. I never, ever get it that one right, ever.

But the words listed below I feel like I used to be able to spell but now just do not come out right. I’ve been noticing them more often. Because between writing for Quiltfolk and drafting essays for grad school workshops; between my bi-monthly Quilt Scout column and cranking out articles of my own for F Newsmagazine; between and editing tons of other peoples’ work for the paper or various classes; between entire continents of email and a myriad of other assignments I’ve got, I write a lot. (“Alot,” even.) So these words I seem less able to spell lately come up with some regularly, simply because my word input/output is so high.

Here are troublemakers, and I’m going to leave them exactly how I type them, straight out of the gate. Who knows: I might actually spell them correctly! Doubtful, but let’s see what happens:

conscious [that’s a word, yeah, I know — but I meant to spell “conscience”!] reciept

I got “concommitant” and “bureaucracy” right, but that’s it, I think. When did I stop being able to spell “pursue”?? The only break I’ll give myself is that I actually can pull off “receipt” most of the time, but only with a full-stop pause over the keyboard so I can do the “‘I’ before ‘E,’ except after ‘C'” children’s rhyme in my head. I’m a grown woman! I don’t have time for “‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C'”! What is this, naptime?? Do I look like I need a carton of milk?

Actually, I would love a nap and a carton of milk. You can bring that anytime.

Anyway, the “I used to be able to do this thing with my brain and now I can’t” is a scary thing to say, but don’t worry about me. It’s not that I’m losing cognitive ability. If I were, I might have said “loosing cognitive ability.” (Is the “loose” vs. “lose” error everywhere online these days or is that just me?)

No, I feel like my vocabulary, both verbal and written, is generally always improving, even if it’s marginal. There will be a point when I cap out, but I’m not there, yet. Grad school and book readin’ means I’m learning new words all the time and I seem to be able to spell them without too much trouble. And some seemingly tricky words have always been no problem for me to spell. I have no trouble with “proverbial.” “Restauranteur.” “Withdrawal.” “Supercilious.” “Chandelier.” “Rhythm.”


I can definitely spell “bed.” Watch:


Clean Copy

posted in: Word Nerd | 20
Ah, line edits. I know the feeling. Image: Wikipedia.
Ah, the red pen! I love it. Image: Wikipedia.


When I look back at entries from several years ago — like this one about the name of this blog, or this one about QVC handbags — it’s hard for me not to want to fix stuff. I feel like I hand over pretty clean copy here on the ol’ PG, but there was a time when I thought I should go back to the very, very beginning entries and revise/edit everything, but then I realized that I wanted to at least try and have a Normal Person Life.

It’s funny, though, because these days I actually feel happy to see how far I’ve come as a copy editor.

Because while it’s important to me that my style and syntax have improved (I think they have!) and while I hope my sentiments and how I express them have matured (have they?), clearly seeing that I’m picking up AP style skills is great news. All the sentiment in the world won’t connect with anyone if the writer doesn’t pay attention to the readability and consistency of her copy. And good copy editing is crucial to the writer as she tries to say what she wants to say. It’s all in the commas, man.

It’s funny, but it’s not my writing classes that get the credit for this improvement: It’s due to being an editor at the school newspaper, of course. When I was editor of Quilty magazine we had lots of eyeballs on all the text, obviously, and we were greatly aggrieved when we found a typo after the issue was printed. But rigorous, Associated Press-style copy editing isn’t the focus at most craft publishing houses, so if I were to go back through all those issues, I’d probably catch stuff.

Though I am well aware there are typos from time to time in PaperGirl, I’m confident that my hyphens, capitalizations, quotations, numbers, titles, etc., is as good as I can get it without the help of an outside editor. And I keep learning.

Just for fun, below are a few examples of sentences I wrote in an entry in 2013 — and  how I would edit those sentences, now. If you are into this kind of thing, you will be really into this. If you’re not, you will be like, “Mary, you are sweet but never give us copy editing examples ever again. Maybe consider describing paint drying.”

I know.

But for my fellow Word Nerds, enjoy. Just remember that I would surely make deeper edits on these sentences if I were working up a serious draft, but for now, the eagle-eyes out there will see the changes and it might make you smile.

All this stuff matters, it really does.

THEN: I bought $50.04 worth of hunter orange today to protect my kith and kin.
NOW: Today, I bought 50 dollars worth of “hunter” or “blaze” orange to protect my kith and kin.

THEN: [The] past few days have been ever-so-slightly tense — and it ain’t because we’ve been playing 6 hours of Yahtzee every day.
NOW: [The] past few days have been ever-so-slightly tense — and it ain’t because we’ve been playing six hours of Yahtzee every day. 

THEN: She was beautiful; pleasantly plump, with the creamy skin one can only achieve by being fed cheese curds from infancy.
NOW: She was beautiful. Pleasantly plump with the kind of creamy skin one can only achieve by being fed cheese curds from infancy.

Writing is so fun. Agh! I love it!!! 😀

Oh, Angela: Reading On The Couch.

posted in: Art, Sicky, Word Nerd | 21
Pre-1940s farmer's market, Ireland. Image: Wikipedia.
Irish farmer’s market, c. 1938. Image: Wikipedia.


It’s not like I’ve been flat on my back. Well, okay. Today I was flat on my back.

My day consisted of 2.5 naps and 2.3 bowls of miso soup with udon noodles. The naps happened because I am spooky tired and can’t seem to keep my eyes open. The udon happened because my weak hemogoblins are demanding quick carbohydrates. Normally I stay away from the demon noodle, but these are desperate times. As a result of all this drowsy noodle eating, I feel sort of worse than I did when I woke up. I’ve got that sick-in-bed noodle daze thing going on, you know?

Not every day in the past week has been like this, but there have been long hours on the couch or in bed. It’s very hard for me to allow myself to spend hours this way, but what can I do?

Well, I can read. So I’ve been reading. Most notably, I read Angela’s Ashes in about three days.

If you were even dimly aware of pop culture in 1996, you know the book I’m talking about. Angela’s Ashes was everywhere, a memoir of author Frank McCourt’s boyhood in Limerick, Ireland in the 1930s and ’40s. McCourt wrote it when he was 69 after a lifetime teaching high school English in New York City. The book won the Pulitzer Prize. It won the National Book Award. Angela’s Ashes won everything there was to win. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for three years. Six million copies have been sold to date. Hollywood made it into a movie. There are a zillion translations. It’s canonical.*

As for me, I was in high school in 1996 and too busy blasting PJ Harvey records in my Honda CR-X to care much about a tale of a hardscrabble Irish boyhood, so I skipped it. And I never did get around to reading it because, you know, life and a zillion other books to read. And if I’m honest, I do get a little resistant to anything that popular. I’m not a joiner and honestly, could it really be that great?

It’s better.

Angela’s Ashes is a masterpiece. It is perfect. A perfect book. Angela’s Ashes is a work of art that became a part of me, page by page. I moaned out loud as I read, anguished to the point of pain at the crushing poverty, the death, the cruelty of circumstances endured by this family. My eyes stung as catastrophe after catastrophe befell them; my eyes sting now to think back to the characters I grew to love.

And I laughed out loud, of course, because Angela’s Ashes is funny. It’s so funny you can’t believe it. I was shaking my head at what I read, wiping tears from my eyes from the laughter (or was it the sorrow?) marveling at this man, Frank McCourt. Not only did he survive his childhood, he found the humor and joy in it, too — and then he wrote it down so well we can survive with him and spew our tea all over our pajamas because he’s so entertaining while we’re with him. (Ask me how I know about that pajama/tea thing.)

My experience reading this book is universal to the point of being uninteresting, I suppose. It’s safe to say that everyone who reads Angela’s Ashes is deeply moved. Oh, I’m sure there’s someone somewhere who tried to start an Angela’s Ashes backlash, someone who “didn’t think it was as great as everyone said it was.” We’re all entitled to an opinion, but I would have a hard time understanding how anyone could encounter that rich pageant of humanity and beauty and misery and reject it in any way. Frank McCourt made the world a gift in the form of a book. And the copy I read I checked out at the library, which means it was free.

All of that, for free. ‘Tis a great world, indeed, Mr. McCourt. Thank you.

*Read the book if you haven’t; read it again if you have.

Homespun Handcraft by Ella Shannon Bowles (Part Two!)

posted in: Art, Quilting, Word Nerd | 17
"Square In a Square" quilt, c. 1880. Probably Pennsylvania. Image: Wikipedia, courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“Square In a Square” quilt, c. 1880. Probably Pennsylvania. Image: Wikipedia, courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


Yesterday, I introduced the great book I found in a used bookshop. I promised to include an excerpt from the chapter on quilting and I kind of didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

The chapter on the “Old-Time Quilt” is really good. It’s so good that I tried to pare down the excerpt I selected but really could not force myself to cut out a single line! So I was typing for some minutes and you’ll be reading for some minutes, but I wouldn’t have kept typing or suggest you keep reading if I didn’t think it was worth it.

Here’s some of what Ella Shannon Bowles had to say about quilts back in the day. Remember, she was writing in the 1930s about “old-time” quilts in the “pioneer days.” I would go back to the text and pin down the exact years/timespans she’s talking about but I am very tired and still have homework. Let’s just call it “the nineteenth century” and call it good enough.

Enjoy. And may you all have full snuff boxes (!) and a “jolly feeling” all week.

“House-keeping was the goal of every girl’s ambition and her “setting out” was planned for years. When she had assembled a number of quilt-tops, a quilting was held. To it were invited every woman and girl for miles around. Usually the housewife planned to get the quilting out of the way before haying. The quilting-frolics, with their accompaniments of good cheer and jolly feeling, had an important social significance.

Before the guests assembled, the quilting-frames were brought in from the loom-shed. They were long pieces of wood, held together with wooden pegs thrust through gimlet-holes to form a rectangular frame large enough to hold the quilt. The frames were wound with flannel, serving as a foundation for sewing the quilt in place. First, the frames were placed upon the floor and the lining sewn in and pats of wool laid evenly upon it. Then the frames were carefully lifted to the tops of four kitchen chairs, and placed under each corner at such a height as would be most convenient for the workers. Then the patch-work top was laid across the wool-pats and pinned evenly all around the edge. Skeins of blue and white linen thread, braided to prevent snarling, a spool of red thread from the store, a needle-book, wax, and scissors were arranged on a table for the convenience of the quilters.

As early as one o’clock in the afternoon the guests began to arrive. The quilt-pattern was duly admired and then the consideration of the stitches to be used in the quilting was taken up. “Cat-a-cornered” and herring-bone stitch were favorites in rural parts of New Hampshire, though the pine-tree was liked by expert needlewomen. The women who could not gather about the quilt knit or worked on their own sewing. Tongues chattered as fingers flew and soon the quilt was ready to be rolled over the frames as far as finished. During this interval snuff-boxes were passed and then the guests who had not quilted drew up to the frames. When the last row of quilting was reached, the married women left the frames and, with jokes and rippling laughter, the girls began a contest to see who should set the last stitch. The damsel lucky enough to do this would be the first to take a husband!

Now the quilt was taken from the frames, shaken and folded and admired. Mrs. Rollins tells us that the finishing of a quilt was a gala day for the neighborhood. “It was unrolled and cut out with much excitement,” she says. “When Hannah took it to the porch-door to shake it out, the women all followed her, clutching its edges, remarking upon the plumpness of the stitched leaves, and the fineness of its texture. It was truly a beautiful thing, for it was the growth of the farm, an expression of the life of its occupants, a fit covering for those who made it.”

After the  men of the family were given their supper, the table was spread with a diaper-wove huckaback tablecloth. The cherished china was brought out and platters of cold meat, puffy biscuits, tarts, pound and plum cake were set out for tea for the quilters. Guests helped “clear up,” and then the husbands and the sweethearts came to take the women home.”

Homespun Handcraft by Ella Shannon Bowles (Part One.)

posted in: Art, Chicago, Word Nerd | 6
The book! Scanned by me.
The book! Scanned by me.


I found a gem today.

There’s a neat bookstore called Selected Works in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, halfway between home and school. (I’ll talk more about the Fine Arts Building another time; that gorgeous building needs its own post!) My friend Justin said that all the books at Selected Works are half off right now, so after we were done at the newspaper office, Justin, Sophie, and I made our way over to check the stacks.

In the craft and home decor section, I found a copy of Shared Threads: Quilting Together — Past and Present by Jacqueline Marx Atkins, a title I definitely needed for my quilt book library. It seemed Atkins’s book was the only quilt-related selection on the shelves but then I spied a sweet-looking, tattered little volume called Homespun Handicrafts. As I lifted the other books out of the way to get at it, I thought, “I’ll bet that book is pretty old. And I’ll bet there’s a chapter on quilts.” I was right on both counts: The book, written by Ms. Ella Shannon Bowles, was published in 1930 — and there is a terrific chapter on quilts.

I was right on both counts: The book, written by Ms. Ella Shannon Bowles, was published in 1930 — and there is a terrific chapter on quilts. Here are the chapters, which I will list because they are great:


Great, right?

“Her Hands Hold the Distaff” is almost the best chapter title ever written, but since the quilt chapter gets the word “romance,” I’m gonna say it’s ours by a nose. The book is not a how-to; it’s an account of “pioneer handcraft…which lent so much grace and homely joy to the struggles of the colonists.” (I think/hope “homely” meant something less negative in 1930?)

Isn’t it great to find new old books? Isn’t it cool to go to a used bookstore and find something that you never, ever would’ve known to look for in a library but is exactly what you needed to find?

Tomorrow, I’ll excerpt some wonderful stuff from the quilt chapter; for now, here is an excerpt from the forward:

The study of old-time American handicrafts is a trail winding on and on into delightful bypaths and unexpected turnings. It is difficult for an enthusiast to cease telling the stories connected with these homely arts of our ancestors, so I have limited myself to describing those crafts in the development of which women have played an important part.

It is my earnest wish that this book may serve not only as a guide to the old-time arts, but that it may stimulate the reader to understake the serious study of the development of the crafts of our foremothers as have such workers as Mrs. Atwater, Mrs. Sawyer, and Mrs. Taylor.

I sincerely believe that knowledge in craftsmanship will add beauty to everyday living. Laurence Sterne once made a statement as true in the twentieth century as it was in the eighteenth. He said, ‘What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests himself in everything, and who, having eyes to see what time and chance are perpetually holding out to him, as he journeyeth on his way, misses nothing he can fairly lay his hands on.’

May I leave this message with you?”




It Was Bat Appreciation Day and You Missed It! (I’m Here To Help.)

posted in: Day In The Life, Family, Word Nerd | 2
As much as I like bats, they're not exactly handsome creatures. I went with free clip art. Image: Internet.
As much as I like bats, they’re not handsome creatures. I went with free clip art on this one. Image: Internet.


A couple weeks ago, Sophie and I took a trip to the Montrose Point Bird Watching Sanctuary. This sweet enclave of brambles and bushes and trees has gotten the nickname “The Magic Hedge” because over 300 species of birds can be found there, according to the Illinois Audubon Society. The Magic Hedge is one of Sophie and her partner Luke’s favorite places to go because Sophie and Luke are legit bird-watchers. In fact, the first time I ever met Luke, he and Sophie had just come from bird-watching. I swear the crazy kids were wearing matching shirts with birds on them. I might be making that up but it’s definitely something they would do.

The love those two have for birds has had an effect on me; I am more in awe of birds because of their interest and joy in seeing them. But the coolest thing Sophie and I saw at the Bird Sanctuary wasn’t a bird.

It was a bat! Yeah, a bat!

We were going along a hedgerow, picking our way along the path, when an elderly fellow coming the other way stopped us, pointed to a branch mid-way up a tree, and whispered, “There’s a red bat just up ahead. Look there!” There it was! A wee, sleekit bat was hanging upside down, sleeping the day away! Why, he looked like a little pussy willow up there, only with a reddish hue to his fur. Sophie and I couldn’t believe it! A bat! We looked at him for awhile. He didn’t do much but he was great. Then, when a lady came along the path, heading in the direction of Sir Bat, I stopped her and told her about the bat, just as the nice man had done for us.

The bat was probably my favorite thing at the Bird Sanctuary that day. My second favorite thing was witnessing Bird Sanctuary etiquette. I love when people get excited by simple things and help other people get excited about them.

Anywhoo, the very next day I was in the newspaper office looking at a website that lists the National Days. You know, National Donut Day, National PaperGirl Day, stuff like that. Well, what do you suppose I saw? I saw that not only is there a National Bat Appreciation Day, but it was coming up in a matter of days! Amazing.

So I wrote up a short, fun little item about this for F Newsmagazine and I thought I’d send you over there to check it out. I really stand by the reading selections I give you in this article. I know many of you are big readers and I promise: You cannot go wrong with the recommendations offered, even if you aren’t so sure about the subject matter.

Also, “Read All A-Bat-It!” is maybe the best headline I’ve ever written, so there’s that, too. Enjoy!


And Now For Something Completely Different: Oulipo!

posted in: Word Nerd | 17
Don't you just want to live inside a great Paris bakery? Like, inside an actual pastry? Me, I call the almond croissant. Image: Wikipedia.
Don’t you just want to live inside a great Paris bakery? Like, inside an actual pastry? Me, I call the almond croissant. Image: Wikipedia.


I’ve been learning about this fascinating (and, to be honest, frequently exasperating) group of writers who formed in France in the 1960s: the Oulipo. The word “Oulipo” is a shorthand mashup of letters from “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle,” which is roughly translated: “workshop of potential literature.”

There’s a lot to say about the group and what “potential literature” is, but for now, just know that the Oulipians were/are writers who like to play with writing. Specifically, the Oulipians play with constraints in their writing, many of which are born from math. The Fibonacci Sequence might be the guiding principle in a story, for example (Italo Calvino did this.) Or a writer might “translate” a text following an algorithm, like one called N + 7, where you take every noun in the piece of writing and find the noun that comes seven nouns later in the dictionary and replace the original noun with that word. Weird, right? Yeah, and silly, but also sometimes wonderful — or at least wonderful enough to inspire something you would never have considered if you didn’t try it.

Mostly, the Oulipo is something most folks who don’t dive real deep into literary movements and stuff will ever know about and honestly won’t ever need to know about. But there’s one work so far that has come out of the Oulipo that broke into the mainstream consciousness enough that some folks have heard about it. It’s a 300-page-ish novel by George Perec that does not use the letter ‘e.’ At all. Not once. No ‘e’ for 300 pages. It was written in French but was translated. The title: A Void. (<– See what he did there?)

When you write a piece of text that eliminates one vowel, it’s called a Lipogram. And you know what? They’re really fun. Well, if you’re me. I mean, some people think rollercoasters are fun. I think rollercoasters are horrifying, terrible, not-funny-at-all, why-would-you-do-that, why-would-you-stand-in-line-for that, nightmares. But some people love them! That’s fine. Enjoy. Me, I like barring myself from using an ‘e’ in a piece of text.

And now, my Lipogram! A piece written without the letter ‘e’. (I couldn’t choose to eliminate ‘i,’ for reasons you are about to discover.)

Oh, and this is NOT an official assignment or contest, but: I urge you, if you choose to comment, try to write your comment without using a certain vowel! I’ll let you pick your vowel. Example: “My name is Emma. This entry is interesting and PaperGirl is the best website writing experiment ever! I like Mary.” See? No ‘o’! So Emma couldn’t say “your” or “blog” or “post” or “love.” Cheap thrills, people. Cheap.)


Not Without An I (a Lipogram)
(c) by Mary Fons 2017

I can’t do this without an “I.”

Without an “I,” nothing I want to craft can or will stand. To my mind, without an “I,” nothing can bloom — nothing worth looking at, anyhow, nothing worth announcing or proclaiming. I’m a nonfiction author. Proclaiming is what I do.

It is a bit tiring, though, on a bad day, if I’m straight with you. My constant “I” has it’s drawbacks. It blocks a man or woman from my soul, occasionally. A constant I, I, I, is blind, off and on, to plights not its own. This is troubling, particularly if an autumn wind blows and it’s dark by four o’clock. At such an hour as that, my “I” is painfully solo.

But still it stands: I shall hold this “I.” No paragraph I put down can do without it. I am so fond of it, in fact, thinking of its bar or ban, oh! I could cry.

You may claim all words in our world with no limits. As for this girl; as long as I clutch my I, I shall want for no sign or symbol.

Word Nerd: Favorite Words.

posted in: Word Nerd | 36
Hello, Meadow. Photo: Wikipedia.
Hello, Meadow. Photo: Wikipedia.


The winners of the essay contest will be announced by Wednesday. The winners have officially been selected and I promise to do the big announcement on Wednesday. Until then, I would like to talk about favorite words. It’s sort of related.

Have you ever been asked what your favorite word is? Have you ever thought about how you’d answer such a question? In my life, this comes up at least a few times a year. I’m not sure if that’s true for you. You might be scratching your head right now. Maybe the concept of choosing (and remembering) a favorite word is something only word nerds do. Why, just today at the newspaper office I overheard a conversation about favorite words. Word nerds hang out in places like newspaper offices and bars.

I have been known to resist the idea of a favorite word. As a writer, after all, one really can’t play favorites. Or maybe a writer can, but a writer’s favorite word is going to be any word that could be classified as the right one at the right time, and what’s “right” changes with the sentence. Furthermore, since the most important thing a writer can do is read (yes, a writer should read more than she writes), she’s bound to come across new words as well as old words used in terrific ways, which means her favorite word(s) really ought to always be changing. If she’s absorbing things, you know?

Maybe I’m overthinking it. I usually am. Therefore, in the spirit of being wrong, here are three of my favorite words:

dimly [aware] poky

“Meadow” is obvious, isn’t it? To begin with, the word starts with “M,” which is a very smart letter to start a word with, e.g., “Mary.” More importantly, a “meadow” is a word for possibly a perfect thing; a pure, sun-dappled thing. A meadow is a place where fawns leap and prance in the bluebells; a place where cows named Buttercup eat buttercups and faeries zip around and charm little girls into naps where they go on adventures and meet magical creatures who let them bury their faces in their fur. Yes, I love a meadow. I knew meadows in Iowa because for every cornfield and timber in Iowa, there exists a meadow — or two. My sisters and I played in forests and oak groves and meadows. So, yes: “Meadow” is a good word.

“Dimly” is great on its own for awhile, but for the full punch, you’ve gotta pair it with “aware.” To pair “dimly” with “aware” is to pair wine and cheese or chocolate and peanut butter. Look:

She wondered, “Is he trying to insult me?”
She was dimly aware she was being insulted.


Eventually, he thought, he would need to go to the dentist about the crown. Until then, he continued to eat ice.
He crunched his ice, dimly aware that his dental work was in danger.

Is not the second sentence in each of the above examples better than the first?? (I realize I don’t have an editor to confirm this; welcome to blogging.) But I believe there’s an intelligence conferred when someone — anyone — is “dimly aware” of something, which is interesting since “dim” usually means the opposite of intelligent. I’ve heard that the mark of intelligence is being able to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind at the same time, and maybe that’s what I like about “dimly aware.” It’s like, you’re thinking one thing but you’re also sort of vaguely thinking of this other thing, and that makes you a person who thinks. Maybe I like dimly because it rhymes with “grimly” and the tone that usually comes with being “dimly aware” of something is grim or resigned.

And then there’s “poky.” Oh, my lil’ poke!

There are two spellings of this word and they’re both good. Let’s consult the oracle, aka, the dictionary:



noun: pokey
  1. prison.
    “25 years in the pokey”
adjective: pokey
  1. 1.
    annoyingly slow or dull.
    “his poky old horse”
  2. 2.
    (of a room or building) uncomfortably small and cramped.
    “five of us shared the poky little room”

I know, right?? It’s so good. A slow horse that you love. A way to describe prison that isn’t a horrifying nightmare. A hotel room that is so bad but you can make it sort of funny instead of a vacation-ruiner. And I also think of my favorite Little Golden Book, The Poky Little Puppy, which is so sweet and good, I think angels wrote it for my grandma to read to me over and over until I knew all the words.

Speaking of words: What’s your favorite? You can choose…three. And you’re entitled to change your mind.


A Day In The Life: High School Writer Gigs.

posted in: Day In The Life, Word Nerd, Work | 7
Picture of high school audience, Ladies Home Journal, 1945. Image: Wikipedia.
Picture of high school audience, Ladies Home Journal, 1945. Image: Wikipedia.


This morning, I beat the sun by a long shot.

I was up at 4 a.m. (gah!) so that I could have tea, go over my materials one last time, get all foofed-up, and get to my rental car, which I secured yesterday evening. By my careful calculations, I needed to be on the road to the northwestern suburbs of Chicago by 6 a.m. in order to be at the first of several high school gigs today.

Every year, a handful of dedicated high schools in the Chicagoland area hold “Writer’s Week” festivals. These festivals — which the students love but always struggle for funding and booster support, dangit — invite professional writers to share their work with the students and to talk and answer questions about the writing life. I have been a featured performer at a number of these festivals for well over a decade, now, which is great but also super weird, because I remember my first few times doing these gigs and it does not seem so very long ago. I remember being a young slam poet and freaking out the night before these gigs, timing my set until it was absolutely perfect because I had a limited repertoire; I remember rambunctious boys in the back of the auditorium one year who threw me off — and how I learned that day, the hard way, how to effectively stop any heckler. (Ninety-nine percent of the time, ignore them. I called the kids out that day and it wasn’t good. They wanted attention and they got it. I learned a lot that afternoon.)

I did first-and second-period at my favorite place, William Fremd High (they saw quilts one year), and then spent seventh and eighth at Bartlett High, a school with students were so respectful and courteous, one gets nervous. I did four shows today, in other words. In case you’ve never performed for 50 minutes in front of an auditorium of 300 or so high school students four times in one day, I assure you: It’s not for the faint of heart and when you come home, you will want to eat food and then face plant into the couch for awhile.

Twice today I was approached by quilters: a teacher at Bartlett and the mother-in-law of one of the Writer’s Week organizers. Both of them were excited to say hi and I could see that both of them were looking at me as the quilting person they’ve watched on TV while trying to square it with the high school poetry/writing presenter they just watched live onstage. Welcome to my world.

For many years, I have had a hard time telling people what it is that I “do.” I’m a writer. I’m a quilter. I’m a performer. I write about quilts. I write poetry and perform it. I perform, in a way, in the quilt world because of the on-camera work. I teach people how to quilt, but also how to write — it’s all this gorgeous, difficult slurry of words and fabric scraps and microphone cords. In the past couple years, I have been really working, with every project I take on, to combine these loves. How can writing and quilting and performance come together? Where do writing and quilting intersect — not for me, but for you? What can I give? And how can I help? (By helping others, giving my art away, that’s how I better understand myself. This is the win-win.)

These are the questions. Thank you, high schoolers and faculty and staff, for giving me an audience today. I move toward answers every time I go to work.

William Soutar Explains It All.

posted in: Art, Word Nerd, Work | 5
Soutar. Image: Screenshot from BBC4 documentary.
Soutar. Image: Screenshot from BBC4 documentary.


Tonight, some words that give me great joy.

William Soutar is one of my favorite poets. I love him so much I wrote a poem about him once. (It’s not good enough to share, yet; maybe someday.) Soutar, who was born in Scotland in 1898, suffered from ankylosing spondylitis, a crippling form of chronic, inflammatory arthritis, and was bedridden for well over a decade as a result. But by all accounts — even in his sickbed he seemed to know everyone who was anyone in those days so there are many accounts  — he was beguiling, charming, warm, and obviously an insanely gifted writer.

When Soutar was diagnosed, he didn’t freak out. When he realized that he would no longer be able to play football, or garden, or travel much at all, he said to himself, “Now I can be a poet.”

Who does that?

I also love Soutar because he was a dedicated journal keeper. Me too, Billy; me too. And leafing through a journal from 2013 the other day — I was looking for a picture that I still haven’t found — I came across a passage from Soutar’s journal that I had copied into mine. It’s about why a person should keep a journal.

Or a blog.

“If you ask me why I deem it worthwhile to fill up a page such as this, day by day — shall I not reply, ‘Worthwhileness hasn’t very much to do with it’? The most natural reply might be, ‘Because I cannot go out and chop a basket of firewood or take the weeds out of the garden path.’ 

Yet that wouldn’t be a wholly honest answer. We are all sustained at times by the thought that whatever we may be we are certainly a solitary manifestation of creation; not a single other creature in all the history of the world has been just as ourself — not another will be like us. 

Why not put on record something of the world as seen by this lonely ‘ego’: here and there perhaps a sentence may be born whose father is reality.”

Thanks, William. It’s good to know you think about this stuff, too.


"Secret Correspondence" by Carl von Bergen, Germany, 1891. Image: Wikipedia.
“Secret Correspondence” by Carl von Bergen, Germany, 1891. Image: Wikipedia.

A couple thoughts on the blog. I will employ sub-headings for organizational purposes. I’ve been working all day and don’t feel confident I can weave anything elegant right now. Thanks, sub-heading!

1. I like it when you read it. 
When I’m out teaching and speaking and dragging my suitcase around, folks come up to me and say, “I hope you don’t think I’m a stalker, but I read your blog… I have to ask: how’s your health? How are you dealing with Claus being gone? Congratulations on grad school! When do you start??” and so forth. Sometimes the person asking is sheepish in the extreme; they feel like they’re intruding. Don’t be sheepish! Actually, sheeps are cute, so be sheepish in a cute way, but know that I love that you read my blog. I write PaperGirl for you. I write it for myself, too; this is me practicing scales almost every day, trying to be a better writer like a flutist is trying to be a better flutist. This blog affords me opportunities to use the world flutist and say it in my mind: FLAU-tist. Now that’s entertainment. But yes: I love when I meet people who read the ol’ PG and you can ask me whatever you like. I reserve the right not to tell you, but I probably will tell you even more than you wanted to know.

2. The secret to a successful blog: consistency and variety.
I’m teaching my blog class at the University of Chicago in a couple weeks and have been working on my syllabus. The research is confirming what I knew already: the secret to a good blog is consistency and variety. This is what I say when I’m asked about blogging and this is what I’ll share with my students. You can’t expect to keep readers if you post once a month, then three times in a week, then three months later, then two weeks later, and so on. That’s true for any blog, be it political, mommy, foodie, or otherwise. What is also true is that variety is the spice of blogs. If I tried to be funny-ish 100% of the time or earnest 100% of the time or anxious 100% of the time or weird 100% of the time, I’d get bored, you’d get bored, and, worse even than that, we’d all be missing out on the breadth of the human experience. This is true even in a foodie blog. I want to hear about the bad meals as well as the good meals. Maybe that’s just me.

3. I still won’t advertise.
I should. I could. But I won’t. I hate those ads. I hate them so much. I hate how web ads know that I just looked at underpants on Amazon but didn’t buy them so now they want to get me to buy them someplace else. I can’t do it to you or to me, friends. PaperGirl is an oasis for me and I hope it is for you, too, just for a minute or two in your Internet life. No ads. Ever. I promise.


Art School Girl Friday, On The Case.

posted in: Day In The Life, School, Word Nerd, Work | 2
One of the two lions in front of the Chicago Art Institute. Go Lions! Photo: Wikipedia.
Go Lions! Out front of the Art Institute. Photo: Wikipedia.

I applied for a job at the school paper. I have a school paper because I have a school!

The student-run paper at the School of the Art Institute is called F Newsmagazine. This would be a frustrating masthead for a newspaper/magazine if wasn’t an art school newspaper/magazine; fortunately, that’s what fNews is and being what it is, it can be — nay, must be — unconventional. It’s a fine publication; I remember picking it up downtown in years prior and admiring it. I would feel the thick, glossy paper it’s printed it on and look through the illustrations and read stories in never-before-seen-fonts-because-students-invented-them and think, “Wow. The people who make this magazine go to school at the Art Institute. That must be really fun.”

When I got my acceptance letter, I went to a reception and picked up the latest issue on the way out. Maybe could get a gig at the paper to help me pay for school, I thought. I saved up some money from my time making Quilty, but it’s not enough. It’s loan time. I applied to the school itself for a merit scholarship and I’ve done the paperwork for another small grant; the hunt continues. But rather than rely on someone/something else to give me money for tuition, I’m more comfortable rolling up my shirtsleeves and getting a job. This approach to things runs in my family and I’m glad, though I remain ever hopeful that some sane, at least marginally attractive wealthy widower reads PaperGirl and has fallen desperately in love with me and will offer to pay for my grad school in an attempt to get my attention and win my favor. I’m waiting, darling, and ready to coo about how you look in your top hat.

I contacted the F newsmagazine offices and met the people in charge. I was given the chance to audition, if you will, by writing a story on the first-ever, free online course offered by the SAIC. I wrote the piece and they accepted it; yesterday I had my official interview with the paper’s advisor-slash-publisher. The conversation was great and I can’t say I was hired-hired because Paul and Sophie need to put their heads together about exactly where I’m best used. A strong handshake and a “You’ll be working with us in some capacity, that’s for sure” makes me feel like I can even tell you all this.

My grandmother (on Mom’s side) started the town paper in Norwalk, IA. My mother co-founded the most popular quilting magazine in history. My sister Hannah is associate editor at a real estate magazine in New York City. My sister Rebecca writes at her job at the Chicago International Film Festival and has been doing some freelance around town these days. We are not an east coast media mogul family. We’re not a midwest one, either. We’re not intrepid reporters, we don’t keep up on the Pulitzers. But the women in my family, we have ink on our hands.

It’s gonna feel really good to work on a magazine again.

Chutzpah: If You Can’t Pronounce It …

posted in: Word Nerd | 0
Matzoh ball soup. I know how to pronounce it, too! Photo: Wikipedia.
Matzoh ball soup — that’s “MOTT-zuh.” Photo: Wikipedia.


One Sunday afternoon, many years ago in Iowa City, I was trying desperately to charm my then-boyfriend’s parents.

We were all riding in his parents’ car. His dad was driving. His mother sat in front seat. Guy and I were in the back. And I did fine the majority of the trip.

The fellow I was dating at the time was a chef — a good one. When I got the job at the cafe where he cheffed, I knew nothing about food beyond Mom’s spaghetti and my young-adult version of it.* But this person, this chef, taught me how to eat. He showed me the world of fresh food beautifully prepared and it changed my life because I love my family, would die for my family, respect and value my family — but my family is not a food family. That’s okay! But when I learned how to eat (and how to cook) because of the chef, life tasted different. And I like different.

So we’re in the folks’ Beemer and Chef’s lovely, intelligent, handsome mother asks me this or that question about this or that thing. I have the occasion to use a word that I liked — liked, past tense: chutzpah. Great word. Yiddish. Means “shameless audacity, impudence.” Like, “He had the chutzpah to run for class president after pulling that stunt in gym class.” I knew how to use the word. But I didn’t know that chutzpah was pronounced “HOOTZ-pah” and ideally, one should do that Yiddish glottal cough thing with the “H” sound. I didn’t know any of that. Your hapless heroine pronounced it, “CHUTT-spa.” Hard “CHUTT.” Spa.

These people were Jewish. By the way.

Chef’s mother made this sound that was half-gasp, half-snort and turned back to look at me with kindness but great, great mirth. “Honey, you pronounce it ‘HOOTZ-pah.” I cocked my head to the side.

“Ha. Ah. I see. Well, you know, then, ha. Ha, then. It’s… She had HOOTZ-pah. For the thing. Are we close? I think we’re close.”

Over a decade! Over a decade since I said “CHUTT-spa” in a car with three Jewish people all with generous Yiddish vocabularies and I still can’t forget it. I thought about it today because I saw the word in an article and that’s a pain because the chutzpah memory starts a machine in my head that spits out all the other times I’ve mispronounced words in mixed company. I was at a fancy lunch meeting once — one example — and ordered the endive salad. I said, “I’ll have the EN-dive salad, please.” The waitress repeated back, “The ahhn-DEEVE salad?” and I wanted to stick my head under the tablecloth.

Turns out you can say “ahn-DEEVE” or “EN-dive.” Both are okay. But there’s just one chutzpah.

*Note: Both versions = amazing

Chica de Papel!

"Spanish Woman" by Alexej von Jawlensky, 1911.
“Spanish Woman” by Alexej von Jawlensky, 1911.

Guess what?! I’m taking Spanish lessons this summer! Chica de Papel is “Papergirl” in Espanol!

Truth be told, I kinda want to learn French more than Spanish but here’s what I’m good at: making soup. Here’s what I’m not good at: foreign languages. When I think about sitting in a desk in Beginner French: Level 1 my scalp gets itchy. It’s too big of a leap. I figure I can prime my pumps with Spanish, see how I do, and then maybe approach French in a couple years. The bonus is that I’ll learn Spanish along the way! I love words and Spanish has a lot of pretty ones.

Plus, I’ve got training wheels because I took Spanish in high school like everyone else and I had enough Italian in college to order a caprese salad and say it right. (It’s pronounced ca-PRAY-zay, not ca-PREESE and that’s a fact.) When Claus and I were going to go to Peru, I surprised myself with how many palabras en espanol I remembered. I head into my 12-week course feeling like I’ve got enough of a basic idea of masculine/feminine agreements, pronouns, and those verbs’ conjugal visits to achieve success — and I think we can all agree “success” means me annoyingly using Spanish words all over my posts for awhile until I get it out of my system. ¿Qué esperas? La clase es muy caro.

What’s incredible is that this is happening at all. I’m never, ever home for long enough to do stuff like this. Why take a course in something if you’re going to have to miss four of the twelve classes for work? Pottery, hang-gliding, the art of Ethiopian cuisine — the bounty of classes and continuing education offered by Chicago often feels impossible for me to access. Well, this summer, I’m at the mesa. (That’s “table” in Spanish! I’m speaking Spanish!!)

And all of you, my flamencos elegantes y exitosos (my graceful and accomplished flamingos) will be my accountability partners. Don’t let me be squishy on this Spanish class thing. Check up on me. Make sure I’m doing my homework. I’m sure I’ll have lots of good cuentos to tell you and I apologize in advance for the silly poems I’ll write to practice my vocabulary. I can’t wait to write them, though.

Viva la Chica de Papel!



Stolz Wie Bolle: “Proud As Bolle.”

posted in: Word Nerd | 0
I love this guy. German people, c. 1916. Photo: Unknown
I love this guy. German people, c. 1916. Photo: Unknown

For all the love I have for words, you’d think I’d have managed to learn another language by now. When I was going to go to Peru back in April, I surprised myself when I focused on remembering Spanish words; turns out I remember a lot from Senora Harold’s clase de espanol, including “Puedo, por favor tener una galleta? No? Okay.” 

And I’ve got a healthy store of foreign words and phrases at my disposal (e.g., in extremis, tikkun, bete noir, lasagna, etc.) but these are but pebbles tossed into vast seas of possibility available to me if I could truly speak another language. Today, Claus had the occasion to share with me a fabulous, brilliant German idiom and I have to share it with you:

Stolz wie Bolle.

The direct translation here is “proud as Bolle,” Bolle being a man’s name. Bolle — you could translate it to “Bob” from the German if you like, or just say “BOL-ee” — is the village guy who wins a ribbon for his prize hog at the fair and then walks around the rest of the year snapping his suspenders and offering all kinds of advice on hog farming, finding ways to mention, offhand, you know, that he won the big show.

Isn’t that great? That there’s an idiom for that thing that humans totally do? It’s so sweet! My sister told me about a guy in an improv class she took once who would totally Bolle-out when he was praised by the teacher after a scene. He would try not to smile so hard his cheek would twitch, he’d get all puffed up and then be impossible the rest of the night.

The image for this post does not come from Wikipedia for once; this is a portion of a photo that Claus sent me from his personal archive. It is a picture from almost exactly 100 years ago. The guy pictured is a villager who came to welcome home a distinguished general who had returned from the war. The look on his face is precisely stolz wie Bolle because he got into the picture. The distinguished man of the hour is in the center of the shot, but Bolle made it into the frame. You can tell he can’t wait to get to the bar and accidentally bring it up.

That man makes me so happy. His smile is a straight line!

By the way: my Small Wonders fabric line (exclusively for independents, you know) has a line extension coming out soon. In addition to the India, China, France, USA, South America/Peru, and Netherlands groups, we’ll be adding Japan, Brazil,  and Germany — just for you, Bolle. Small Wonders is available at your local quilt shop and at fine online retailers like Missouri Star and Fabric Depot. 




Creation: It’s the Strangest Thing

posted in: Art, Day In The Life, Word Nerd | 0
Spiderweb in scrappy browns and reds. Photo: Me
Spiderweb in scrappy browns and a consistent red, currently on my design wall. Photo: Me

It’s the strangest thing.

I teach patchwork techniques. I speak about quilts to audiences large and small. I write about quilts at least twice a month in my column; I even wrote a whole book about quilts and edited a magazine about them for several years. And then, at the end of the day, when I drop my suitcase or I turn in this or that, record for the podcast, or take care of this or that piece of quilt-related business, I want to sew. How can it be?

It must be the power of making. Creation can never be boring and is rarely something to which a person has to drag themselves. The temptation of adventure through creativity is hard to resist. That pile of fabric scraps, that template, that cutting mat. What will come from it? What colors will come together? What shapes?

It’s the same with writing for me. Playing with words came before playing with fabric in my life; before I was absorbed into the world of quilts I couldn’t stay away from the word thing and I still can’t. The only reason I miss days posting on PaperGirl is because the night comes and I am too tired (or am otherwise engaged) and I can’t plunk myself down and get it done. I don’t like those days.

There was a poster at the Atlanta show that asked, “What will you create today?” It feels a little poster-ish to repeat here, so I’ll rephrase the question:

What act of making is irresistible today? And what are you going to do about it?


A Writing Prompt for Both of Us.

posted in: Art, Tips, Word Nerd | 0
Mary Pickford, 1918. Photo: Wikipedia
Mary Pickford, 1918. Photo: Wikipedia

I’ve been asked, “How do you come up with something to write every day?”

There are two parts to the answer. The first is that I want to be a decent writer and the only way to get decent at something is to practice. It’s true for a violinist. It’s true for a bridge player. I’ll never be a great writer, and I know that. Earnest Hemingway was a great writer. Virginia Woolf was a great writer. Both of those writers committed suicide, though, so maybe I don’t want to be a great writer.

“Now, now, Mary. Plenty of great writers did not commit suicide.” I’ll say yes, that’s true, and why are you speaking to me like a governess? The point is that even though I’ll never be great, I can be better than I was last year, hopefully. That’s the goal.

The second part of the answer is that I’m a naturally observant person and things that I see frequently make me intensely sad, excited, or confused. Frequently I see comedy, or at least what I perceive as comedic. I find those things worth examining more closely, even if they are otherwise insignificant things and they usually are. Writing stuff down is my preferred method of more closely examining things. I’m a terrible oil painter.

I suppose there’s a third reason: I like writing PaperGirl so much that if I miss a day, I’m grumpy. There was a spell this past holiday season when I was really lax and it was uncomfortable, like having a poke-y tag on my shirt. So sometimes I just plain make myself write about something because I don’t sleep as well if I don’t.

This morning was strange. I drew a blank. My aborted or curtailed travel plans were off the table. I didn’t want to write about my body. I couldn’t think of something funny that happened to me. I did see a shooting star the other night but I didn’t feel like being woo-woo. So I did something I’ve never done, which was to google, “non-fiction writing prompts.” It turned out to be a very good idea, because none of the prompts inspired me, but the act of looking up writing prompts was a writing prompt in itself. It also prompted me to create my own prompts. You have my permission to use them.

What is your personal credo?
Closely examine your feelings on olive loaf.
What stops you in your tracks?
How do you feel about adults who take tango lessons? Explain.
What the heck is wrong with you and what are you going to do about it?



Word Campaign: “Thisclose”

posted in: Day In The Life, Word Nerd | 2
That'll do it. Bullfight, Plaza de Toros, Madrid, Spain, 2007. Photo: Wikipedia
Oof. Bullfight, Plaza de Toros, Madrid, Spain, 2007. Photo: Wikipedia

Language is a living, breathing thing. It morphs, it adapts, it sheds its skin. Being that this is true, I would like to propose that “thisclose” to enter the English lexicon. One sees this word being used in certain cases and I feel thisclose is legitimate, needed, and rather elegant. Allow me to make the case.

I am beside myself that in the past few years the word “literally” has lost its original meaning. “Literally” used to mean “actually,” so if you said, “The hotel room was so gross, I was literally barfing,” it meant that you were actually barfing because you found your hotel room unacceptable. You were saying that vomit was coming out of your head because the definition of “literally” meant “taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory.” But some point, “literally” came to mean something like, “I was totally barfing over that hotel room,” or “I felt like barfing.” The way I see it, this is a bad morph. Whenever someone says, “I was literally over the moon,” I just stare at them and envision him or her actually flying over the actual moon.

But I have to get over it. Because that’s what language does. This is the nature of the thing. Language adds to itself, e.g, “That dude’s jacket is on fleek” and it subtracts, e.g., “That dude’s jacket is aces.”

Now that I’ve buried the lede, let’s go back to thisclose.

When there’s a close call, or when someone is on the verge of doing something but chooses not to do it, “thisclose” is precisely what they mean. Examples:

“I was thisclose to throwing my computer out the window.”
“I was thisclose to asking her out but I just didn’t have the nerve.”
“The bull was thisclose to skewering that dude and it was a shame because his jacket was on fleek, dawg.”

Right? (The pronunciation would be “THIS-close,” by the way.) Golly, I think it’s tops. You see it out there, but it needs to be official. It might be the word-of-the-year at some point (the Times chooses one of these each year, along with the American Dialect Society and the Oxford Dictionary and when they do that, it goes into the dictionary.) Maybe I’ll start a campaign, except I’d be crushed if this great word would lose out to “fleek.” As in:

“My favorite new word was thisclose to being selected but it lost out. I feel like throwing my computer out the window.”

I Give You “Grompy.” (You’re Welcome.)

posted in: Day In The Life, Story, Word Nerd | 0
This child is so cute and posed so strangely under this planter, she looks like a wax figurine in a glass case. Still cute as a button. Photo: Angela Sevin, 2005.
This child is so cute and posed so oddly under this planter, she looks like a wax figurine in a glass case. Still cute as a button. Photo: Angela Sevin, 2005.

I had the pleasure of visiting my southern belle girlfriends recently, including the lovely Lady of The Livermush. Ol’ Livermush did something remarkable again and I have to talk about it. (Understand that I can call this girl “Ol’ Livermush” because she looks she stepped out of a Vermeer painting or the pages of Valentino’s latest ad campaign. She’s gorgeous.)

We were finishing up dinner and the table’s attention landed on my friend as she was explaining a writing exercise she had done when she was five years old.

“Ah was just fahve,” she said with the accent I’d kill for. “And ah wrote this on mah paper, ah swear:

I like to eat ice cream.
I like to eat cheese.
I like to be tan.
I like to lay on the beach.

“Then,” she said, “On the next page, do you know what ah wrote? Ah wrote:

Sometimes I’m grompy.

“And ah spelled it just like that, too: grompy.” She shook her head. “Do you know nothin’s changed? Ah still like ice cream. Ah still like cheese. Ah like to be tan and laah on the beach. And I do get grompy, sometimes. Don’t we all?”

When I learned she spelled “grumpy” “grompy,” I laughed so hard I made a honking sound into my napkin. Not since the appearance of “hangry” — what you get when you’re so hungry you become angry — has there been a new word so perfectly onomonopoeic. Now, Ol’ Livermush simply spelled “grumpy” the way it sounded to her. But to me, “grompy” can — and should — now define a very specific sort of bad mood: the bad mood that happens to you when you’re disgruntled (probably about something work-related) and you’re having gastrointestinal issues. Right? Have I got it? Let’s take it for a spin:

Person A: What’s wrong with you?
Person B: Look, I’m just a little… I’m a little grompy today, sorry. 


Person A: Stay away from Chuck today… Good lord is he grompy.

or perhaps:

Mother: Pick up your crayons!
Child: No!
Mother: I’m giving you to the count of five, Mr. Grompypants. ONE…TWO…

We’ve been given a gift, comrades, and you have Livermush to thank for it. Livermush, the great educational reformer Horace Mann once said, “Until you have won some victory for humanity, you should be ashamed to die.”

Livermush, please do not die. But if you should, know that your job here was done.

Weltschmerz R Us.

posted in: Word Nerd | 0
What is absolutely superb about this picture is that these two kittens could be illustrating any one of the words I define in this post. Glorious. (Photo: Stephan Brunet, 2007)
What is absolutely superb about this picture is that these two kittens could be illustrating any one of the words I define in this post. Glorious. (Photo: Stephan Brunet, 2007)

The English language is a monstrous mutt. It’s a hydra. It’s a slouch. It’s messy, confusing, and — if I may be so bold as to say it — it whores around. The French have put a cap on the words in their language, but English? She takes all comers.

And thank goodness. Because as gorgeous and vast as the English language is (there were something like 1,025,110 words as of January last year) sometimes only a word or phrase from another language will get you where you need to go. Here now are three of my favorite foreign words and terms, favorites because in a matter of syllables they precisely describe universal concepts that English can’t do in a long paragraph. First I’ll give you the word, then the dictionary definition, then a working interpretation. Also, those are my own phonetics because writing phonetics is my kind of fun on a Saturday night and I am not joking even a little.

sprezzatura: (Italian; say “spret-za-TOO-ra”) rehearsed spontaneity, studied carelessness.
When you spend 1.5 hours getting ready for a date just so you can look like you don’t care, you’re practicing sprezzatura. 

l’esprit d’escalier: (French; say, “les-PREE de-skal-YEY”) Literally, “the spirit of the staircase”; the predicament of thinking of the perfect retort too late.
Some jerk says something awful to you. You fume, you steam. Five minutes after you and the jerk part company, it hits you: Ooooh! You should’ve said [insert awesome comeback here.] Yes, Virginia, there’s a term for that exact feeling. “L’esprit d’escalier” is what happens when you think of the perfect, deliciously awesome thing to say to a jerk when he/she is gone and you’re halfway down the stairs, headed to your car. We’ve all been there.

Weltschmerz: (German; say, “VEL-schmertz”) a feeling of melancholy and world-weariness.
I love how the Germans jam words together. Welt = world; schmertz = pain. When the bastards have gotten you down; when you don’t miss New York but you do miss the love you had there; when you spill tea in the kitchen and you clean it up but there’s still invisible-to-the-naked-eye honey on the floor in spots that sticks to your bare feet; when tax time approacheth and you’re a self-employed woman with a zillion 1099 forms that will surely all be lost in the mail this year because four addresses in 2014 (!!!!); when you go to a guild meeting — a wonderful, amazing, warm and inspiring guild meeting — and see no fewer than four pregnant women, and you feel pretty sure you will not be a mother in this life; when you forget to get shaving cream — this is Weltschmerz.

See what I mean about needing a paragraph? One word will do it if you pick the proper one. Or, as the stewardesses say (in English):

“Please locate the two exits nearest you, keeping in mind that the closest exit may be behind you.”


My Life In Definitions.

posted in: Day In The Life, Word Nerd | 1
The only thing harder than defining "existential crisis" is doing it in Pictionary.
The only thing harder than defining “existential crisis” is doing it in Pictionary.

Define “reality.” Define “said.” Define “jump.” So hard, right?

Defining object nouns is easier. “Mozzarella” isn’t too bad; “Denmark” is doable. But the verbs and the gerunds and past participles are crazy-making. By the way, one of the five definitions of “jump” is “to push oneself off a surface and into the air by using the muscles in one’s legs and feet.” The definition of “said” as an adjective is “used in legal language or humorously to refer to someone or something already mentioned or named.”

Definitions are so hard to do (for me, anyway) that looking them up for even common words is one of my favorite activities. And now, I present to you definitions that are shaping my life these days, each edited for length. All definitions from the New Oxford American Dictionary, except where noted.

peripatetic (adj.): traveling from place to place, esp. working or based in various places for relatively short periods

breakup (n): an end to a relationship, typically a marriage

moving (adj.): relating to the process of changing one’s residence

existential (adj): of or relating to existence

crisis (n): a time when a difficult or important decision must be made

work (n): activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result; mental or physical activity as a means of earning income; employment

yo (exclam.): a slang way of saying hello, usually friendly and casual [Urban Dictionary]

hustler (n.): an aggressively enterprising person; a go-getter

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