Yes, even “real” writers say it wrong

by Kristin on December 12, 2008

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Last Saturday afternoon, we put up our Christmas tree and then I updated my Facebook status:

Kristin loves having a pre-ornamented tree in the house.

The “naked” tree was so natural and fresh-smelling. Without the lights and ornaments, it somehow looked like it was growing up out of the floor, making its presence in the living room even more exotic and surprising.

Not soon after my status update, Becky commented:

what does that mean? it came with its ornaments? you really love it? The girls did it while you were at your reunion?? Enquiring minds want to know!!!

Ah, yes. “Pre” can mean “before” or “already.” Even though I was sitting there looking at the tree, and knew exactly what I was referring to, my words were unclear. I tried to straighten things out, and Becky responded:

so funny. no, I meant I love having a tree in the house BEFORE it’s decorated. you know–au-naturale, at least for a while.

OH!! that makes much more sense and seems way more you!! phew!! I thought you’d been body snatched…

What do you mean, she’ll never grow up?

Words and syntax are funny, complicated things. My friend Kellee devotes her entire website, The Tongue Untied, to grammar and punctuation, and how carelessness and misuse can lead to serious confusion. (If you’ve ever read the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, you know what I’m talking about.)

Many of these misunderstandings are pretty funny, if you look at them from the right angle. Here’s another exchange that happened to me just this week, on Twitter. (Keep in mind that MomsterGina and I have never met, and we just recently started following one another on Twitter. I know, Twitter is strange.)

kt_writes: on our walk to school this am, my youngest told me “I want to be able to grow up.” so honest & self-aware. so heartbreaking.

MomsterGina: Curious, why does your [daughter] think [she] may not grow up?

kt_writes: she’s the youngest of 3, and she doesn’t want me to walk her into the school any more. wants ME to let her grow up. :(

MomsterGina: Oh! I totally took that as she had some terrible illness and wasn’t going to grow up or…? I’m dramatic.

Dramatic indeed! (Plus MomsterGina is pretty funny.) But just like with the bare, au-naturale tree sitting in my living room as I typed on Facebook, I had a visual to work with that my Twitter followers couldn’t see: my healthy, vibrant, eight-year-old daughter holding my hand and skipping down the sidewalk to school in her clunky, hand-me-down boots. Of course I wouldn’t, for a second, think my tweet could be interpreted literally—that somehow she wasn’t going to grow up. But I can see how someone else might think that, particularly because I exaggerated when choosing the word “heartbreaking.” Watching your littlest child get big is bittersweet, but there are certainly many things in life that are much more heartbreaking.

Why we mess up and what we can do about it

When you make a living as a writer, like I do, it’s easy to get over-confident about your ability to say what you mean. But I still manage to be unclear. And when I’m called on it, I probably feel more stupid than the person who makes a living as, say, an accountant or landscape architect.

Facing these miscommunications, no matter how small, is not only humbling, it’s very important. It makes me think about the two posts I wrote earlier this week about people who try to communicate big things on little signs: “Make love, not signs” and “Vacuum cleaners, signs and Jesus.” Miscommunicating can hurt and do damage.

There are a number of reasons signs may be prone to miscommunication. One is the limited amount of space a sign gives to say what you need to say. That clearly came into play in my recent Facebook and Twitter foibles.

But the bigger issue, I think, is rooted in how far-removed we can be from the perspectives of others. When I have something tangible right there in front of me—whether it’s my Christmas tree, or my daughter, or evidence of God’s grace in my life—it’s easy to make a lot of assumptions, which can leave plenty of holes in my efforts to communicate. It’s important for me to remember that Becky and MomsterGina and people like Ryan (from the “Make love, not signs” post) aren’t always seeing what I’m seeing.

And that’s where conversation becomes critical. Because we’re always going to say it wrong from time to time, no matter how careful we try to be. It’s important to say (and to hear others saying) “I don’t get it,” or “What did you mean?” It’s even important to say and hear “I don’t like how that was put. It makes me feel crappy.”

Then we can back up a bit, talk and listen some more, and try to get it right from there.

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  • http://middleofthepond.wordpress.com/ middleofthepond

    Oh, can I relate! I once had an entire group of friends rushing to comfort me over my father’s death when I wrote that I was “heartened to see that my mother was coping so well in my father’s absence.” My father, rather than dead, was on a month-long trip to Scotland.
    To your more significant point, I do think it is incredibly difficult to remember that no one but us is looking from our point of view. And even when do we happen to see the same exact thing (like a sign in a vacuum store window), the *way* we see it is guaranteed to be different.
    So, it seems to me that instead of feeling stupid for mangled prose, we writers might simply count ourselves lucky when we succeed in letting a reader in on what we see.
    At the same time, I don’t think that inadvertent confusion or the resulting reader agitation is inherently a failure. It’s just not the outcome we intended. But remarkable things can follow. Just look through the comments on your “signs” post — actual dialogue! Nice work.

  • http://chuckwestbrook.com Chuck

    Enjoyed this post, as usual, Kristin. You’re right about my telephone game tweet lining up with this post, too.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    middleofthepond: What a great story about your parents. I really like what you said about counting “ourselves lucky when we succeed in letting a reader in on what we see,” and also your point about “inadvertent confusion” not being “inherently a failure.” Watching real dialogue emerge from the mess is indeed the most gratifying part of blogging—and one of life’s most gratifying experiences, too.

    Chuck: Thanks, as always, for being a faithful reader and encouraging friend in my blogging endeavor.

  • http://bernthis.typepad.com Jessica Bern

    The big down side to email, Facebook, all of them is your ability to be “you” and not have it misinterpreted, especially when “you” as in “me” can be somewhat sarcastic at times.

    I prefer the phone quite frankly.

  • http://www.jungleoflife.com Lance

    Hi Kristin,
    I enjoyed this post very much – because we DO speak from our perspective, and that’s not always that same perspective that others “see”. And, without a rich and genuine conversation, we can easily take what has been said in the wrong context. It reminds me that I do need to question more often, not just accept that I understand…

  • Elaine Tolsma-Harlow

    Why don’t you think I write more on the comment section of anything? My writing is not the best & the story I write in my head never comes out as passionate or sincere as I mean. Its why I avoid words & stick to painting.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Jessica, you’re so right. It’s one thing to get people to see what we’re seeing. But to use words to get people inside your head, in tune with your own brand of sarcasm and other quirks? That often feels like an exhausting task. (I should add, though, that you manage it very well on your blog.)

    Lance, thanks for reading and commenting. I, too, need to be more quick to ask “What do you mean?” It somehow feels rude when I’m the one who’s thinking of asking, but not at all when I’m the one being asked. Now if we can only find a few extra hours every day for all those genuine conversations we want to have, right?

    Elaine, I have often thought “word people” have an unfair advantage in the world, no matter how visually-oriented we are and how much we love art. I would LOVE it if you could leave a painting here as a comment, but I also love when you decide to leave some words. They always communicate something meaningful to me.

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  • http://www.juliehammonds.com Julie Hammonds

    One of the best gifts I’ve received from having an essay accepted for publication in “Ask Me About My Divorce,” and subsequently connecting with fellow contributors on Facebook, is encountering you and your blog. I appreciate your specific insights about the writing life as well as your general honesty, skill and straightforward writing. It’s some of the hardest writing to do and you do it very well.

  • Kristin

    Julie, your comment has me glowing. Isn’t it wonderful? Connecting with other people who seem to *get* us can transcend the excitement of being published! That’s what it’s all about, after all. I’m so glad our paths have crossed in this way.

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  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Genevieve Charet

    Okay, on a lighter note, have you ever visited http://www.engrish.com? From one wordie to another…this is worth blowing a few minutes of your hard-earned “writing time” on…

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