Writer’s Anonymous

Here’s the beginning of a speech I wrote to give as one of my Toastmaster’s projects. It’s loosely based on what you might way at an AA meeting.

Hello. My name is Carma and . . . I’m a . . . writer.

Phew! I said it. It’s taken me so long to admit my . . . my obsession. I know, though, that Writer’s Anonymous can help me.

I’m here today to share my story. Like many writers before me and those that will come after, as well as though that are coexisting with me, I started early, in elementary school. It started innocently enough.

I diligently practiced my letters. . . . I particularly loved the cursive lower case letter “f.” The way it would loop and loop again. God . . . it was art. It felt good. I would fill whole pages with this letter. But I digress.

From there, I graduated to words. Little units of communication. Beautiful. Succinct. Ubiquitous. You know, I think my favorite moment during a spelling quiz happened when I was a junior in High School. The word was “macabre.” My teacher, who had a very distinctive way of speaking, said “Macab-bra. The castle was very . . . macab-bra.”

My love for a good word is just as strong today as it was back then. There are words that are music to my ears, and like chocolate for my mouth. Words like . . . purple. If you say “purple” enough times in a row, it ceases to have meaning and starts . . . to sound really strange.

I love perusing dictionaries. I’m so easily side tracked when I’m looking up a word. I’ll be looking for the definition of . . . oh, say . . . ostinato — a brief, unvarying melody or figure repeated continually throughout a composition, by the way—but it will take me forever to find it because I’ll stop along the way to find out what “percaline” — a glazed fine cotton fabric used for dress goods, shirting and linings — means. Or my curiosity about what the dictionary has to say about “Oriental rug” — a rug made by hand in the Orient — will stop me for a few minutes. Before I know what has happened, I’ve spent half and hour reading the dictionary!

But I deviate.

From words, I could only progress to sentences. You know . . . subject, verb, object. Lovely, eloquent, omnipresent sentences. For example: The gargoyle scaled the condominium.

I relish a good sentence. Oscar Wilde was was wonderful with sentences. Take this one from The Picture of Dorian Gray: “He played with the idea and grew willful; tossed it into the air and transformed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescent with fancy and winged it with paradox.” While reading that particular book I would often lose the story for the beautiful sentences.

Another superb source for savory sentences is The Well-tempered Sentence and The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. She comes up with some wonderful gems, while she discusses English grammar, like “Not only were we naked, crazed and starving (and far from our warm little homes); we were without any good books as well.”

I’ve often been known to stop in the middle of reading a good book to admire the sentence structure. Good books, you know, are riddled with good sentences. But I diverge.

From sentences came paragraphs. The paragraph is a fickle creature. Depending on the end product that the paragraphs will form, you break them in different places. When writing a term paper, for example, you have long, four- or five-sentence paragraphs. But when you write for a columnar publication like a newspaper or magazine, single-sentence paragraphs are much more common. It has to do with white space, that visual nothingness the mind requires in order to understand the communication taking place within it. But there I go again; I drift.

From paragraphs I moved to essays, articles, treatises, stories, compositions, term papers, theses, opi. I really enjoy a nice, meaty, expository composition. I often tend to write pieces that contain everything you could possibly want to know about a given topic. You name it; its in there.

I have experimented with poetry. For example, here’s a limerick I wrote in the fifth grade:

Here are some questions for you:
Do you sit, while smiling, in glue?
Do you like that new boy?
Or would you rather go to Troy?
And are your eyes, which are green, shiny blue?

In fact, I like to make up limericks about people I know, creating rhymes around their names. For example, I worked with a lady named Irma. Here’s the limerick I created for her:

There once was a lady named Irmagard
Who carried a very large wooden shard

That’s as far as I got . . . couldn’t come up with the third rhyme. I suppose I could have used something like “tub of lard,” but that just isn’t . . . poetic.

At home, I often spoke of the stories I was going to write. I wrote down my dreams and shared them with my mother. She now has an automatic comment when I say, “I had a weird dream last night.” She sighs and says, “How long is this one going to take to tell?”

Though my writing was not yet continuous — that’s a recent development — it disturbed my parents. They would tell me that I could not become a writer. I couldn’t spell. And I would respond, “That’s what editors and spell checkers are for!”

But, for awhile, I did get better. I decided to be a scientist. At first I was going to be one of those scientists that studied everything. Then I narrowed it down to astronomy and biology. I finally decided on biology — astronomy had too much math. I went to University of California Santa Cruz to pursue my Bachelor’s. I was going to be a marine biologist and study dolphin communication. Yes, that’s right, communication. I can’t get far from that topic.

You know what the big problem with science is? It’s full of words. Beautiful, multi-syllabic, tongue-tasty words. Words like neotony, dodecahedron and standard deviation.

It was while I was at UCSC that I discovered science writing. It was 1987. I quickly succumbed to the getting-paid-to-write bug. After graduating, I spent three years at a software company researching and applying for graduate school in journalism. I needed help, and I needed it bad.

I mean, I was staying at my job on the weekends and coming in early so that I could write. I was writing short stories. I was writing email. I was even writing a newsletter for my Toastmaster’s club. I was insatiable.