Monday, September 24, 2012

For National Punctuation Day: Victor Borge

To mark National Punctuation Day, I give you Victor Borge and his famous "Phonetic Punctuation":

Friday, September 21, 2012

Instant Continuous Writing Inspiration

Imagine being the first person to realize that if you tied a rock to a stick, you could hit things with greater force and lower the risk of smashing your own fingers, which you inevitably do when you use a rock alone.

Imagine that: You've just created the first hammer. You must feel like a genius!

Or do you? Your whole life, you've been hitting things with rocks and smacking them with sticks. The raw materials for a hammer have been in front of you for as long as your Cro-Magnon mind can remember. Why did it take you so long to put the two together?

That's kind of how I feel about the following suggestion.
The secret of getting ahead is getting started
— Agatha Christie
Some writers wake up in the morning all bright-eyed and inspired, as if their muse has already brewed and downed the first pot of coffee. These writers sit down in the morning with a whirlwind of ideas spinning in their heads and the inspiration to pluck out the best of them and put them on paper — or, more likely, on the screen. They practice their craft daily with unerring fluidity and grace, facing neither frustration nor ennui.

At least, I've been told there are writers like this. I don't know any of them, and I'm certainly not one myself.
It's never too late to be what you might have been.
—George Eliot
Most writers have to deal with writer's block, lack of inspiration, self-doubt, frustration, and a seething hatred of Monday mornings. There's not much I can do about Monday mornings, but I can help you with the other four. Or rather, I can show you how to help yourself — if you write at your computer.

And, like that first hammer, the tools have been in front of us for a long while; we just have to put them together.
Success is taking your talents seriously but not yourself.
—Sarah-Jayne Gratton
The first tool comes from your favorite writers, the ones who inspire you to write and to keep writing. You know which words of advice and inspiration touch you and motivate you; gather them. (You might use some of the quotations peppered throughout this post.)

And it might not be a quotation, but just an image of your favorite author: Kurt Vonnegut staring out through curls of cigarette smoke, or Ernest Hemingway laughing heartily. Gather those, too.
You're not insane. You're not a failure. You're just trying to do something that matters.
—Hugh MacLeod, aka Gaping Void
The second tool is your computer, where you do your writing. Since Windows Vista, you have been able to select a folder full of image files for your desktop wallpaper, and Windows will shuffle through those images at a speed you set. (You might be able to do this on a Mac, too. I don't know.)
Imagination grows by exercise.
—W. Somerset Maugham
Put the two together: Create a new folder. Fill it with images (or images containing quotations) that inspire you and motivate you to write. Then point Windows to that folder for your desktop image. (If you don't know how, you can find instructions at Full disclosure: I work at

You probably won't find pre-made images with the inspirational quotes you want — though I might soon have a Pinterest board of my own that you can draw from. That means you'll have to create them yourself. There are plenty of free programs to do this with. I prefer GIMP, but you can just use MS Paint.

Now, whenever you sit down at your computer, you've got instant and continuous writing inspiration. When you're mired in self-doubt, frustrated, blocked, and uninspired, press the Windows key and D to show the desktop, lift your spirits, and get you back on track.

It's really such a simple thing. I don't know why I didn't think of it sooner.

So, what quotations would (or do) you include in your motivational desktop? What inspires you to write?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Creating a Twitter Handle from Your Experiences

@Rose by Any Other Name Would Still Smell as Tweet

Coming up with a Twitter handle for yourself can be difficult, especially if you have a common name. And as the number of Twitter users grows, the available possibilities decline.

You can find articles all over the Internet with hints and tips and guidelines for creating a Twitter name that is memorable and personal without getting you fired. But in every case, you need somewhere to start, and it doesn’t have to be with your name. Thinking about your likes, dislikes, and experiences can yield just the right name for you.

A while back, I asked my Twitter followers for the stories behind their Twitter handles. I got a number of responses that show a wide range of sources for their names. Here are their stories.

But first, my story:

Back in the late '80s and early '90s, I attended a week-long fine arts church camp every summer. One summer, we had six attendees (including me) named Andy — maybe 10% of the total number of campers. It was a strange occurrence, and we made the best of it.

Dinner entertainment was common throughout the week. After one dinner, we six stood at the front of the room and sang the chorus to “In the Garden,” but using the punch line to the blonde-at-the-pearly-gates joke: “Andy walks with me. Andy talks with me. Andy tells me I am his own . . .” At the next dinner, we sang “Handy Man” (made famous by James Taylor), only we sang it as “. . . fixin’ broken hearts, baby I’m your Andyman.”

Fast-forward to my first year of college, and I’m telling the week-of-too-many-Andys story to Becky, my new best friend. She immediately latches on to Andyman and calls me by that name for the next four years.

People have been misspelling my last name for my entire life, even when I spell it out for them. So when the Internet took off and I needed to come up with usernames for bulletin boards, eBay, and whatever else I was dipping into back then, I knew that using my last name wouldn’t be the best choice if anyone else ever had to type it. Andyman was right there at hand.

That lasted a couple times, but then I hit a site that already had some other Andyman registered. Taking a slight cue from Neal Stephenson, whose Snow Crash included a character named Da5id, I substituted a number for a letter. 4ndyman just made sense, and I began using it everywhere I needed a new username.

And in case you’re wondering, just calling me “Andyman” is fine. That’s how I refer to it. Some people have tried to pronounce the 4 (like when I proposed to Anita Samen about an hour into the Chicago Manual of Style in the Age of Twitter panel), rendering it as something that sounds like “foreign D-man.” You don't need to do that.

Around 10 years ago, I was pushed into buying a house I didn't want by my wife and in-laws who "wanted that 10 acres back in the family." Of course, it's me making the payments, and I'll have to do so until I'm 73, but that didn't seem to matter. The house was bigger than we needed, and cost more than we could really afford, and I said this repeatedly (to no avail).

So I named the place FAR Manor, where FAR is an acronym for "Forget About Retirement." The handle "FARfetched" was an easy hop from there when I started the blog, and then later when I jumped into Twitter.

In the early 2000s — back before the rise of the blog — I felt compelled to create a website of anecdotes. Called "Out of the Gordinary," the site was, in retrospect, about as amateur as it gets: coded manually and hosted (for free) through my ISP.

At first, I focused on humorous (but largely self-deprecating) stories from my childhood. As time went on, I added whatever struck my fancy: journal entries, photos, grammar tips, and even Survivor commentary. Through it all, the site remained visible to a small group of people — generally, just the few friends and family who'd received the URL.

By the mid-2000s, Web crawlers had found my site. I was excited by the increase in traffic, but I was totally weirded out by seeing my content, taken out of context, in search engines. Especially given the amount of personal information in my stories, I thought it wise to take the site offline until I could find better way to implement it.

Unfortunately, it's been over five years since I pulled that plug.

As I look through my local archive of the site, I find myself both amused and horrified: amused anew at the stories I'd since forgotten, yet horrified at how much of the content seems too personal for today's Internet.

Enter Twitter:

I signed up for a private Twitter account in early 2009 — at the time, solely for the purpose of sharing random tidbits with a smaller pool of friends than Facebook allowed.

I'm a huge fan of language and wordplay, and it didn't take me long to find like-minded people on Twitter — people I couldn't interact with through a private account. The 2011 National Grammar Day haiku contest (hosted by @EditorMark) was the final incentive I needed to create a public Twitter account. As a nod to both my long-defunct "Out of the Gordinary" website and my perpetual status as a linguaphile, I chose the screen-name "GordinaryWords."


@cmdrsue comes from a band of Trekkies. Commander Sue London was born during Christmas vacation 1983 when an off-hand comment by her brother (aka Captain Dave Paris) inspired the creation of The Strange Crew. Four crewman have penned episodes (all of the Crew are based on real people) with even more crewmen contributing ideas. None of the stories, to my knowledge, reside on the Internet.

The last penned and yet-unfinished was The Return of the Prodigal Dave (or The Hazards of Dirty Undies) which was set down in the early 90s. Not exactly pre-Internet (we were playing MUDS at the time), but close enough. Many of us still fondly recall our ship (the USS Bob, NCC-0000) and notice things like the fact that my Prius is "Commander Sue Blue."

(Among our affectations were a slightly different color scheme than regular Trek.)


It's a simple story, really. I discovered Neil Simon when my older sister brought home a collection of his plays in high school. I idolized her, so naturally I stole the book . . . and read it cover-to-cover in one night. My favorite of the plays was The Star-Spangled Girl, about a two-man magazine operation that falls apart when a beautiful girl moves in next door. The formerly prolific writer, Norman, takes to painting Latin love letters on the stairs and presenting her with gifts of livestock, and when he finally tries to write again, he comes up short. The only word he can write is “zizzivivizz.”

That moment in the play fixed itself in my brain, and I started using the word in my letters and journals any time I had writer's block or felt I had nothing to say. And a few years ago, when I realized that the personal blog I'd started for no particular reason had become a place to write when I just couldn't think about my grad school work anymore, Zizzivivizz seemed the only appropriate name. Since then, it's become my blog name, URL, Twitter name, and pretty much every way that I identify myself socially on the internet.

I love Zizzivivizz because it captures my relationship with writing so well, and because it's a piece of my history. That volume of Neil Simon plays taught me so much about writing and humor and the ways laughter and tragedy are connected, and it's still something I go back to like an old friend. Zizzivivizz feels like me.

When I was in grad school back in the '90s, one of the things I was interested in was semiotics (suitable enough for someone studying drama, but most of my fellow students were a bit scared of it for some reason). One time, when I was talking with a friend of mine, he joked about sesquiotics (semi : half :: sesqui : one-and-a-half). Otic also happens to be a word referring to ears.

So when, around 1999 or 2000, I decided I wanted to put together a website for myself, I decided to call it institute Sesquiotic: "Lend us an ear and a half . . . Do you feel that a word — or other signifier — that can't mean at least two things at the same time isn't worth much? Is language your favourite sport? Would you rather be usefully wrong than uselessly right?"

I've been using "sesquiotic" as a username in a variety of fora since then. But I didn't do that much with the theme until 2008, when I got the idea for word tasting notes (I'm a wine buff and edit, among other things, the website of a noted wine writer). Sesquiotics was a natural for that, and I called the blog Sesquiotica (after the journal Semiotica, which, incidentally, once published a paper by me). And when I finally started a Twitter account, of course it was as @sesquiotic.

Is there a story behind @KillerLashes? Alas, there's really not . . . just my longtime envy of boys with beautiful eyelashes!

So what's the story behind your Twitter handle? Is it something you pulled from literature? From pop culture? From personal experience? Share your story in the comments below.