Shift+F7, Let Me Count the Ways


“You have to be careful with a dictionary,” teased my twelfth grade English teacher, “you don’t want to get distracted and lose track of time.”

At the time, fourteen years ago, this seemed a ridiculous notion. I raised a single eyebrow, an expression I had perfected in junior high school, and watched Mr. Siebert stroke the heavy book in his hands. I remember thinking the man had clearly taken advantage of the chemicals available in his youth. To me, there was something a little off about reading a reference book for pleasure.

English class was never my favourite. I was disturbed by the constant and illogical analysis. To my mind novels were to be enjoyed, not prodded for deeper meaning. What was the purpose of that? Fictional characters were friends, to be accepted as they were. I was uncomfortable putting them under a microscope.

Shakespeare was acceptable. I never felt close to Juliet and I still can’t imagine having a beer with the likes of Horatio. Benedict, with his dry, Alan Rickman delivery, came the closest to friendship territory. Yet, even then, his dismal experiment with romance relegated him to the station of permanent acquaintance. Thus, these characters were open for dissection. I was more of an observer in their world and didn’t get an icky feeling of disloyalty when I tried to enter their internal lives.

Short works had their own draw. The short story’s purpose is to be twisted and turned from every angle. As they are read in one sitting, I didn’t have a chance to feel overly connected. Essays are much the same. No one writes an essay simply to have a good time. There is value there beyond entertainment.

As for poetry… Let’s just say English class did not give me an appreciation.

Mr. Siebert was a passionate teacher. Now I acknowledge how lucky I was to have been under his wing. His joy for words was infectious and by the end of the semester I came around to his point of view. Though he never had me reading the dictionary in my spare time – that would come later – he did teach me the beauty of the English language. Without his efforts, I doubt I would have ever learned the difference between words like “delusion” and “disillusion”. I know I never would have gained an affection for the daring dash.It was also Mr. Siebert who gave me my first thesaurus.

There was no going back. Today, shift+F7 remains the most frequently used shortcut on my keyboard. I never would have survived my university career without it. When I was young, I loved flaunting my wide vocabulary. I was Anne Shirley, using “perspicuous” when “understandable” would do. It must have been annoying to most and plain ridiculous to others. I remember tossing off “superfluous” in front of a restaurant co-worker and being baffled by his confused expression. He had thought it was hilarious that I was so casual with a word he’d never read and he pestered me every day thereafter for a new word. I had become his walking dictionary. I was mortified.

My love of words can only carry me so far. Other than the coming up with ideas, editing, re-editing, and then editing again, the hardest part of writing is remembering all of the brilliant options and being able to put them together in a clear manner. Or, in lay terms, the hardest part of writing is writing. Would university writing classes have made it easier? Maybe, or maybe it’s this hard for everyone.

A fellow blogger once told me that anyone who wants to write already has the ability. She maintained that in order to have the desire, one must have the aptitude. I am not sure I believe this. It seems to me the world is full of people who want to write. One out of two friends in my wee circle thinks he or she is a writer. Does this mean they all have an equal ability? If so, I am screwed.

But, it isn’t a competition. There is no moratorium on stories or worthwhile things to say. If there can be over 50,000 books written on the American Civil War, there can be at least that number of articles on a myriad of other subjects. We all have our own voices and as I can’t write like anyone else, they can’t write like me.

Insert self-deprecating comment here.

I do wish it was easier. I wish I had worked harder in English class in the same way I wish I had spent more time with my childhood dog. It may have given me a better idea of what is important to me much earlier in life. Instead, my attachment to the act of putting down words, crawled to the forefront of my brain with extreme prejudice. It still feels precarious, as if one deviation, one passing interest in some other hobby, could tip it into the void of forgotten dreams.

Perhaps it is a love that will pass. It is possible that in several years time I will feel about clothes design the way I feel about writing now. Or maybe I will return to the stage. I am keeping an open mind. If Mr. Siebert convinced a scoffing teenager that dictionaries are a source of thrills, anything is possible.

4 thoughts on “Shift+F7, Let Me Count the Ways

  1. I loved that you became a walking dictionary. I was never a fan of English at school, and one of my English teachers ruined poetry for me completely. However I am now almost on a daily basis wishing I had paid more attention in school when a teacher told me ‘you will need this in later life’. I’m now considering night school to get my grammar and writing skills up to scratch.

    O and I’m so jealous that you can do the one eyebrow thing. I can’t but would love to!!


  2. I think you are a great word smith, and have a great gift for writing. English was a pretty good subject for me, hated math! But to this day I couldn’t explain half the rules of sentence structure. You are so lucky you had a wonderful teacher like that.


  3. When I first started my current job, one of my new coworkers said to me “you use a lot of big words.” I took it as a compliment.

    I share your opinion on poetry though – it’s just not for me. I understand there is appeal and value in it, but I am out of the loop when it comes to that.

    Writing, like painting, music, sclupting or even fashion, is art. It’s super subjective and hard to judge once you get past basic things like spelling, grammar, and sentence structure – and even then, those elements can be purposefully misused for artistic expression/comedic value. So it’s hard to say what is good writing and what is bad writing, since even unpopular stuff or stuff that maybe should be considered bad by traditional standards, will have fans (popular examples coming to mind are Twilight and 50 Shades). Whatever. If the artist/author is happy and it speaks to some people – intended audience or not – I find it hard to invalidate that.


  4. As an English major I will confess that for a while I sacrificed reading for enjoyment for reading for reward (grade, degree) and I wrote to impress, not to communicate. It took a year or two of teaching and over analyzing before I realized that if my students didn’t learn to love literature, it didn’t matter what else they learned. I wish I could have those students back. But reading the dictionary? I think I would rather read the phone book…great cast, not much plot though.


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