Considering the Lego-like malleability of letters and the ease with which new arrangements come into fashion, words have astonishing power — to provoke, irritate, catch a moment or a year in their syllables. Word of the Year is a game we play in North America every December, searching for the one arrangement of those bits of alphabet that perfectly reflects where we stand at this moment in the sweep of history.
Others play a different game: Words that should be wiped from our mouths.
Each year when I arrive in San Miguel de Allende, I set my suitcases inside the door and immediately walk out into the town. Yes, the sidewalks still insist we tread single file; the Parroquia still glows pink as the sun sets; the iron benches in the Jardin still hoard the day’s warmth. But look! The giant Christmas tree has moved to Plaza Civica. From our new digs, I hear the bells of not three churches, but five.
This first walk settles me in the same way that running my fingers over the spines of my books settles me: reading the titles, even thinking of them, lifts my heart into a place that is at once familiar and everlastingly new.
September is my birthday month, but I would love it anyway, and not only for the crisp, apple-scented air. This time of year smacks of fresh starts, of new teachers and new shoes. The pantry is bulging with fall harvest and bookstore shelves are crammed with a fresh crop of stories. As Wallace Stegner writes in Angle of Repose
, “There was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.” Read more
The pages are so swollen we have to pry the books from their shelves with a long screwdriver, levering against the after-effects of the flood. A few thin volumes at the outer edges seem almost dry. With his sleeve, Wayne wipes the mantle and lays them down flat. “I think these can be saved!” he says, his voice sharp with the kind of hope that knifes up from despair.
Spring strolls in on the heels of the equinox; bumblebee, ladybird, and dragonfly children parade under globo rainbows through the streets. The Virgin’s tears water the sprouting seeds, and books pop up like freshly hatched chicks. Even the pessimists admit a shade of rose in their view.
After seven years of researching and writing, I finally printed out a draft of my nonfiction novel The Convict Lover.
The stack of pages was higher than a child’s booster seat. Even in my innocence, I knew prospective publishers were unlikely to read a 750-page prison tome, so I hauled out my scissors and glue pot—this was 1994, the digital dark ages—and attacked my hard-won words. Six months later, the manuscript was lean and muscular, reduced to a mere 88,000 words from its original 200,000. My heart, along with countless, priceless scenes, lay in shards on the floor.
When Helen Keller was eleven, she wrote a story called “The Frost King.” The Perkins School for the Blind published it in their alumni magazine. Almost immediately, Helen was accused of stealing the idea from Birdie and his Fairy Friends,
a book she’d never heard of. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, discovered that someone had, in fact, read the book to Helen when she was eight, finger-spelling the words for the blind, deaf child. Helen had no memory of this. For hours, the girl was grilled by a jury of teachers. She was absolved, narrowly, but the ordeal triggered a nervous breakdown. She never wrote fiction again.
In one creation tale, from Tumblr’s zwischendenstuehlen
, books are hatched as tiny tomes — blind and naked creatures. Diligently, the writer makes little jackets to keep them warm during the first dark season of their lives. Those that make it through their various trials grow up to be big and strong and wise, taking their place on the shelf beside their older sisters and brothers.
In an exhibition featuring Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts a few years ago, I found a small framed drawing in a far corner. The image was bizarre: a round-breasted woman holding a fig leaf on strings over prominent male genitalia. The title of the piece
was Exquisite Corpse, the name the Surrealists gave to an old parlour game known as Consequences.
Exquisite Corpse is a kind of blind collaboration. The game begins when one person draws a head at the top of the page, then folds over the paper to conceal the image from the next person, who then draws the chest, handing the paper back and forth (or around the parlour) until the entire character is drawn and the image — often funny, always strange, and definitely accidental — is revealed.