Sprinkles on top

January 15th, 2008

To study words you must know the origin of words. – Dogen Zenji

I love words. I love it when people love my words. If I could eat and breathe words I would be happy. If I could make my living with words I would be ecstatic. Unfortunately, the business I’m in isn’t about the words, but about what’s underneath.

What exactly am I trying to say?

I’m so fond of my own language that the hardest part of writing is not starting or finishing. The hardest part is changing a measly word, particularly if it’s not my idea to do so. I’m attached at the tongue to my own cleverness. I mistake the notes for the melody, the brushstrokes for the painting, the rainbow sprinkles for the cupcake underneath. Ever taste just the sprinkles? Do and you’ll see that it’s not about them.

So what’s the point here?

A long time ago I got a fortune in a cookie that said, “Cleverness is serviceable for some things, but sufficient for nothing.” Left to my own cleverness, I can string together pearls like, well, a string of pearls. A very long string of pearls. With no clasp on either end, and no way for anyone to get any use out of it. But such a pretty string of pearls! Doesn’t that count?

You’re losing me.

When I’d first assembled 50 or so pages of early writing, not knowing a thing about publishing, I judged the writing to be so good, so obviously special, that I sent it to an agent. Not an agent I knew, but an agent whose name I’d overheard from a neighbor at my three-year-old’s swimming lesson. This agent was so kind to reply at all, even with a gentle refusal, to this mound of – what, sprinkles? – and give me my first awakening. It’s not about the words.

Are we getting any closer?

Of course we use the words, because it’s all we have to work with. Words are the only way we can approach the unsayable essence. But we don’t exactly write our way there; it is more like unwriting. We dive back into the mush of our muddled language to extract the pure shine. Every time we’re sent by critics and editors and unguarded husbands back to the keyboard it’s to find the source under our skin, the precise truth beneath our words that anyone and everyone recognizes. That’s the one that looks good enough to eat.

And tastes great too.


  1. My mother is an editor, and I have deep experience of the truth that deleting things from a writing almost invariably improves it.

    On the other hand, I’ve never mailed a 50 page mess to anyone; the past path is not for regret.

    Comment by Chris Austin-Lane — January 15, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

  2. Revision is key, isn’t it?

    Comment by Shelli — January 15, 2008 @ 7:26 pm

  3. I must confess a love of my own writing. I’ve coined a word: autoscriptophilia, which applies as I reread my favorite blog entries over and over, chuckling at the wit and the phrasing (despite my mother’s comment: “You don’t really edit these blog entries, do you? ” (Something I can write here and not on my own blog, as my mom reads my blog but does not I think google me to monitor my internet wide presence.


    Comment by Chris Austin-Lane — January 15, 2008 @ 9:00 pm

  4. I did that a few months ago – mailed off those early pages, convinced of how special they were, to the agent of my husband’s ex-girlfriend, a lawyer-cum-children’s book writer. She, too, was kind to write back at all. Mostly I remember the word “saleable” (as in, not that). I had never thought of this word in relation to my writing. Is that me being in love with my words? Is that because I’m all sprinkles and no cupcake? In my quiet heart, I know the “real” writing is yet to come.

    xo Jena

    P.S. Looks good enough to eat. Yum.

    Comment by Jena Strong — January 15, 2008 @ 9:02 pm

  5. i have a piece pending publication if i can extract from myself ‘the whole story’ what the editor felt i was keeping from the piece. i was forgetting about the gooey cupcake filling and using loads of pretty sprinkles.

    i am so caught up in the emotion of it, the process of letting the words out, i don’t know the story, or any story (i use the word story loosely). those string of pearls, those brush strokes are all i know.

    what you are saying is hitting me in the gut, and that’s good. i can kind of feel a shift happening in my writing. i am starting to see what a crap-ass writer I am…not clever or witty. this is so good, like i can start fresh. thank you for letting me peek in your wisdom.

    Comment by mb — January 16, 2008 @ 1:08 am

  6. I’m loving these words on words.
    Sometimes I stop myself and have to ask, what am I really trying to say? Just say that. It is enough. And even then, cut out half of it.
    Cupcakes are yummy. Sprinkles are pretty. the two together is a treat.

    Comment by bella — January 16, 2008 @ 4:26 am

  7. My first novel has been rejected no less than 20 times, once in under three minutes. But I believe it hasn’t been rejected enough. It won’t be enough until it gets through.

    Comment by marta — January 16, 2008 @ 5:24 am

  8. Karen-
    I am so enjoying catching up on these posts this week. I loved this one in particular although they all are hitting home. Its not about the words, but what is under the words. Its true that the prettiest words can make the most boring read. Magic happens words somehow find a way to string together and communicate that which the heart can only utter. It often does not take much but yet again takes everything. Thanks for these posts–can’t wait to read more

    Comment by meg casey — January 17, 2008 @ 5:44 am

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