1. Learning to spell my middle name in kindergarten (“Katherine” is long)
2. Opening a Roth IRA in my mid-twenties (I was a waitress and it wasn’t much of an investment but I did it, anyway)
3. Being included in the first-ever Best of Write Club anthology (out this month.)
Write Club is a live lit show started in Chicago a few years ago by writer-performer-genius Ian Belknap. The show goes in three bouts, with two writers per bout. A week in advance of the show, Ian pairs up the writers and assigns each pair two opposing ideas, e.g., Rain vs. Shine, Hello vs. Goodbye, Fire vs. Water, etc. One writer takes “Hello” and the other takes “Goodbye” and they go off and write a piece extolling the virtues of the side they drew. You get seven minutes up onstage to deliver the piece you’ve written, onstage, at the mic. No props, no costumes. There’s a clock that ticks down from seven minutes. There’s a packed house every week. The bouts get ferocious and amazing and heated. The audience goes crazy with love and loyalties. The winner of each bout is picked by the audience; whoever gets the loudest, frothingest cheering wins and the winner’s fist is hauled up into the air by Ian, just like you’re a boxer and the crowd goes wild. If you win your bout, you get to name any charity you want to give your prize money to and that’s what happens with your prize money.
I can’t describe how incredible Write Club is because it’s late, my contacts are crunchy, and I have to be on a plane at 7am tomorrow morning. The best I can do tonight is to tell you that Write Club will leave you breathless. There is astounding writing talent in Chicago. We have so many brilliant people writing here, it approaches embarrassing. We’re stinking, filthy rich with good writers who are alive, which is to say nothing about all the ones who are dead (e.g., Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Lorraine Hanesberry, etc., etc.) I’m honored to call many of these (alive) people my friends and I’m goofy, nerdy, tripping-over-my-feet happy to be able to write alongside them every once in awhile. Write Club has expanded to San Francisco, Atlanta, L.A., and Toronto; more cities are sure to come, and I hope they do. But the show was born here in Chicago and it will always have the imprint of Chicago’s meaty fist in its forehead. Chea.
Anyway, The Best of Write Club anthology has come out and I’m in it. I haven’t stopped pinching myself. There are 24 writers in there and my friend Chloe and I start the whole book off with the essays we did for our bout, “Foreign” vs. “Native.” I drew “Foreign”. I won the bout that night, but a) Chloe’s essay is amazing and b) my first time at Write Club, I lost my bout. It’s a hard game.
I have a book sale going on right now and you should take advantage of that. But if you’re like me and you buy .8 books a day, get The Best of Write Club at a bookshop called The Book Cellar, or Amazon, or lots of places online. You’ll pay under $20 and get some of the best, freshest, most exhilarating writing you’re going to read this year. I saw a lot of it happen live and I’m telling you: these words are electric.
Note: I was at the Chicago Book Expo today to read my essay. That’s why I keep saying “here.”
There’s a performance series in Chicago called “Salonathon.” It was founded several years ago by my friend Jane. She and I met at the University of Iowa and I will never forget the night we really became friends. We went to The Foxhead, a cozy Iowa City bar with a lot of small taxidermy and one large jukebox, and we drank some beers. I remember how the bond felt as it formed. It felt great; I knew I’d know Jane for a long time.
Jane curates Salonathon every other week. There are musicians, dancers, poets, comedians, performance artists, writers, and acts non-categorizable. I have had the pleasure of performing in the series numerous times. Each show has a theme, and this week, the theme was “Money.” I did a piece that went over quite well, so I thought I’d post it. If you’ve ever wanted to be a better writer and/or suffer less in regard to money, you’ll like it. I edited for language a bit; Salonathon is raucous; this blog, decorous.
(MARY stands at a microphone. She has Orwell’s rules written on big placards. When she gets to a new rule, she reveals the next placard. MARY may or may not be drinking Tanqueray as she performs this piece.)
I divide my life in two: the time before I discovered George Orwell’s six rules for effective, honest writing, and my life after.
Orwell’s rules work for speaking just as well as for writing, and the theme at Salonathon tonight is “money,” so this brief address is about money and how to better speak (or talk) about it.
Orwell says in his rules and elsewhere, that language matters. It doesn’t matter in the way the Grammar Police say it matters; “ain’t” is a word and has been a word for long time so ignore them; he means that when we write and when we speak, we make seismic choices that shape our faces and our days. And as we make and spend money, we make the same kinds of choices. So when we speak about money? Double whammy.
Orwell’s first rule:
i. “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
Here is what you are not allowed to say and never allowed to write, ever, ever again: money doesn’t grow on trees; money is the root of all evil; money isn’t everything; the best things in life are free; you can’t take it with you.
Let’s pull one of those out: “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” We know what the point is. The point, is that to survive in the jungle, even though it looks like a fairly cushy jungle when you’re raised like most of us here tonight were raised, the earth is a vicious animal. You take away the skyscrapers and the iPhones and the streetlights and you’ve got a thankless prairie under your feet and some hardscrabbling to do, comrades.
We have to eek out a living while we’re alive. We gotta eat. We have to find shelter. It’s deadly serious. Plus, we’re wired to make more of our species. These are our charges as humans. So when you’re headed to work and you hate your work, rather than making it worse by muttering the phrase, “Welp, money doesn’t grow on trees,” say – or just think – “I am earning a living. I gotta eat. I need shelter.” And maybe work will seem more important, less magically crappy than when you say tired, cliched phrases over and over. They don’t help you.
ii. “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
“The members of the Board of Governors and the Reserve Bank presidents foresee an implicit strengthening of activity after the current rebalancing is over, although the central tendency of their individual forecasts for real GDP still shows a substantial slowdown, on balance, for the year as a whole.”
That gush of Fedspeak comes courtesy of Alan Greenspan, during some godawful testimony from some Fed monetary policy report to Congress in 2001.
It means nothing. Language like that is engineered to mean nothing. It’s a card trick. Words and phrases like foresee implicit strengthening and central tendency of individual forecasts, these are the hand you’re watching here while the other hand takes your wallet over there and yes, that’s literal. Taxes come out of your wallet; Greenspan was talking, ultimately, about how much of the money you made today will be removed from your wallet. Reject this language. Do a close read, if you can stay awake — you must fight to stay awake! — and translate. It’s very hard to tell what he meant. But I think that phrase meant: “The money forecasters say the GDP is still bad, but after the budget is balanced, it will get better.”
iii. “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”
Let’s say [SELECTED AUDIENCE MEMBER] here is going to have trouble paying her rent this month. She’s got two ways to handle the call to her management company/landlord.
Option 1: “Hi, um, I’m calling to, well, it’s… It’s kind of a, an uncomfortable thing, but I am in a bind with my car. It is in need of some really crazy expensive repairs and without it, I can’t get to work because I can’t take the bus to work, because I work in the burbs three days a week. And I need to have the car repaired before Monday – it’s in the shop now – and for rent this month, I can pay it, but I can’t pay it till I know how much the car will be, the repairs. So it might not be that much, but it might be, I don’t know. So I’m hoping, I mean, if it’s okay, that I can pay my rent by the middle of the month? I know, I know, there’s a fee, it’s not the best, but I kind of can’t… You know, I don’t see… You know, it’s just, well, it’s just hard to see how I can do both and I need to like, figure that out.
“Hello, this [AUDIENCE MEMBER]. My rent will be late. I’ll include the $25.00 late fee when I drop it off. Thank you, goodbye.”
Dignity. Dignity, [AUDIENCE MEMBER]! It’s your money. It’s your language.
iv. “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”
What’s interesting about [AUD. MEMB] is that she lied about the car. When she gets off the phone with the management company, we hear the truth. And Orwell doesn’t say anything about not lying, so it must be okay as long as its in the active voice. Instead of saying to her roommate,
“I have spent all my money because I have gone shoe shopping.”
“The money is gone. I spent it on shoes.”
And then get on with your life. Enjoy the shoes. They’re fabulous!
v. “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
News anchors, “financial correspondents,” and radio talk show hosts like foreign phrases because they sound fancy, but they are rarely used for any reason other than to make the news anchor or “financial correspondent” sound fancy or to avoid facing the truth. Example:
“The work was done pro bono.”
No, the work was done for free. Ah, but “free” scares people. You’re a lawyer who does something pro bono, you’re still kind of a scary lawyer. You’re a lawyer who admits to doing something for “free” and watch your email box erupt with people who want free legal advice. We hide behind foreign words ad nauseum. See what I did there?
I give you another (quick) example of this foreign phrasing that is garbage: caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware.”
“This drug is not tested.” “This toy has caused choking death in fourteen infants.” “Our lemonade is made with organic cow pee.”
Caveat emptor? Perhaps “run” is more to the point.
* * *
I hope I haven’t sounded pedantic.
The day I read Orwell’s rules, my life changed because my language changed. I’ve spent a good deal of time over the past few years not just “trying to earn a living,” but trying to earn a living that I love. Since the kind of living I love takes a fair amount of money – I’m a shoe person, too, [AUD. MEMB] — I have made choices that have led me to increased income and I continue to make those choices. I have important contract business beginning soon that will span the next few months and all this begins on Monday, when two Important People people will fly into Chicago to for a marathon meeting with me. Briefcases will be involved. There’s a lot to talk about.
Look, the language that I use in that meeting will either a) benefit my livelihood b) keep me where I am, or c) cost me. Any tools of language that I posses must be primed and ready so that I can deploy them when I need to. My language will make all the difference.
Your language is your gun. Your language is your livelihood. Your language is your sex, it can be a drug, it is an integral part of the rock n’ roll we all love. Don’t get lazy. Make more good language and you will make more money.
Ah. Orwell’s final rule:
vi. “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.