Poplollies & Bellibones

A writer is naturally a logophile, a lover of words.  Words are our charcoals, pencils, inks, paints and film cameras.  Writing is a mixture of archeology, art, music and synesthesia.   The writer yearns to unearth the language to create depictions that can be seen, heard and felt, often in ways that transcend the literal meaning of the words themselves.

That’s why “lost words” are so interesting.   I recently came across a used copy of Poplollies & Bellibones:  A Celebration of Lost Words  by Susan Kelz Sperling in a bookstore.  This book resurrects words that are considered obsolete, seldom used in today’s writing or speech, many of them Elizabethan, many of them referring to customs, beliefs or objects that have fallen out of use.  They vividly describe a visceral Jabberwocky of the past that breaths new life into the way we use language.

Here are some examples:

A bit of a chitty-face (pinched face), with a bugle-beard (shabby beard), he globbed (swallowed greedily) too much bellytimber (food), and became a porknell (fat person).  Arriving too late for the maw-wallop (a badly cooked mess of food), he had to kiss the hare’s foot (have only scraps).  At sparrow-fart (daybreak), the scrow (sky) gave him gwenders (cold shivers).  He listened to a fliperous (gossiping) flerd (fraud), which led him to become widdershins (misfortunate).  His wife firefanged (scorched) the eggs and the smoke made her gleed (squint-eyed).  There was garboil (commotion) outside, so she yelled, “Gardyloo!” and poured dirty water into the street.  Her husband had a nose of wax (fickle personality) and treated her with pumpkinification (exaggerated praise), though she was a drassock (drab woman), while he indulged a poplolly (mistress) on the side.  His mistress was a bellibone (pretty lass), but was often carked (anxious) and fizgig (frivolous).

These “lost words” remind us how extraordinary language can enhance our descriptive palettes.

Of course, pyrotechnics can only go so far in writing.  In a recent sketching class, our instructor was discussing the power of the visual and ways of seeing, and shared a descriptive fragment from his sketchbook:  “she was wearing the reddest coat possible.”  This simple phrase blooms with color.


Create Commons Photo by Mysza

Creative Commons Photo by Mysza

Rejection is hard. But there’s no way to thrive and grow as an artist without sharing your work and taking that risk. Right before starting this blog I made a commitment to work harder on sending my work out. As a writer with a full-time day job, I found it hard enough to do the writing, let alone do the work to hone it for publication and make the effort to send it out into the world. But I was excited to start doing it more. And lo and behold, the very first short short story I submitted was accepted to a small literary magazine (online AND in print) in the U.K.! Eagerly I began revising stories and poems to send out and developed an organized list to track this process.

Since that first huge validation, I’ve gotten only rejections (I’m still waiting to hear on work still in the cybersphere, however, and I also sold a piece of artwork). My method is to try to send something out again right away, to maintain my momentum, and I have been trying to do that. It’s a lot of work to do the research and try to match what I hope is the right piece to the right publication. It’s a bit like gambling, and it’s a big risk.

Rejection is a teacher of sorts, though. It teaches you to deal with it. It forces you to focus on the work and remind yourself that the selection process is very subjective and, yes, quite competitive. And that it’s not personal, no matter how hard that is to remember, considering that what’s at stake is something you created from a lifetime of inspiration, study and soul-mining.

Recently an editor rejected a piece and commented that though the piece contained some nice details and descriptions, she didn’t find it that compelling. I felt fortunate to receive a comment in the first place, as that is not the norm. And I found myself revisiting the site realizing that the published pieces there were  more compelling that what I had submitted. I felt disheartened for awhile, but since then I’ve gone back and looked at some of my other work that I think might be more substantial and I plan to  hopefully re-submit something better. I will also go back to the work I originally sent because I believe the editor was right — the piece needs more substance. It is too superficial. It’s important to have faith in your art, but it’s also helpful to know when you could do better.

I have been heartened recently by reading Tinkers, a novel by Paul Harding. When Harding sent it out to agents and editors, he met with resounding rejection.  It was mostly criticized for its slow, quiet pace, and the novel “languished” for three years before finding acceptance by an editor at a tiny independent press who appreciated it.  It was published and met with critical acclaim, placing on several year-end “best” lists.  And then it won the Pulitzer Prize. Naturally, this is a pretty dramatic and unusual outcome, but it’s a helpful story to remember when prospects seem bleak.

I have also been inspired by writers I know who work hard at their craft and refuse to let discouragement overtake them.  My friend Lunden recently won a Pushcart Prize for a piece published by Creative Nonfiction that took months to place.  Rejection is teaching me to be as honest as I can about my work, and to pay attention to criticism, if it helps me to improve. Rejection is also teaching me perseverance and patience, without which any chance of success is slim indeed.

“Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely essential.” – Jessamyn West

“Rejected pieces aren’t failures; unwritten pieces are” — Greg Daugherty

“I wrote for twelve years and collected 250 rejection slips before getting any fiction published, so I guess outside reinforcement isn’t all that important to me.”  — Lisa Alther