A man of letters


The other day, while driving with a friend of mine, I came to the sudden realization that I no longer know the alphabet. Please understand, this is not an Alzheimer’s moment—not to make light of that debilitating condition—but rather a sign of the place I have reached as a writer.

You would think, if I am a writer, that the alphabet would be the most subconscious of things in my life. Everything I have just written has relied on the use of letters. But it’s not the letters I’m having problems with…it is the alphabet.

My first experiences with a typewriter were during typing class—how ironic—back in high school, where I was the only boy in a class of about 20 girls. So much for paying attention to the typewriter keys. As I became more comfortable with the idea that the girls and their developing curves would still be there for my next class, however, I slowly paid more attention to and became more comfortable with the keyboard.


As a side note, I am old enough that my initiation to typing was on a manual typewriter, which meant pounding on the keys to make keystrokes. To this day, my various computer keyboards suffer mercilessly as I continue to pound the keys rather than simply depress them.

In the decades since high school, I moved to electronic typewriters and then to computers and smart phones…and in all cases, I worked the old standard QWERTY keyboard, on which the keys were supposedly arranged based on usage in the English language and finger ergonomics.

My understanding, however, is that the facts supporting this arrangement were actually incorrect, and that there have been several attempts over the past century to try to introduce new letter arrangements on keyboards based on more accurate usage statistics. These efforts have universally failed, and I have always wondered why. Now I know.

The event that triggered my alphabetic crisis was a trip to Buffalo, NY, to see the chicken wing movie I described in an earlier blog post. As my friend and driver Mike was unfamiliar with the streets of Buffalo, he asked me to type the address of the theatre into the GPS unit, which is when the proverbial if not literal wheels fell off.

The keyboard was in alphabetical order starting left to right from top to bottom.

I couldn’t find any of the letters I needed. Despite knowing immediately that they were arranged in alphabetical order, my fingers instinctively flew to where the next letter would reside on a QWERTY keyboard.

It took me for-freakin-ever to type in “236 Main St”. I haven’t felt that stupid since…well since I was in kindergarten learning the alphabet.

We eventually made our destination, but I am now terrified at the prospect of having to travel anywhere that requires a GPS.

I wonder if the Children’s Television Workshop has given any thought to a remedial Sesame Street for adults, because I really feel like I could use Cookie Monster’s help right now. That would be good enough for me.

On Word, Ho!

The things one thinks of:

What’s another word for “thesaurus”?

I need another thesaurus like I need/want/desire/have use for another/an extraneous/an alternative/a supplementary hole/gap/abyss/chasm in my head/cranium/brain carrier/noggin.

Is Roget merely the thesaurus author’s pseudonym?

Who first put the alphabet in alphabetical order?

Is it true that the letters of the alphabet, in order, spell out the name of a town southeast of Cardiff, Wales that even the locals can’t pronounce?

The word “onomatopoeia” was really an etymologist drunk-dial, right?

Why use a short word when you can use a perfectly viable polysyllabic etymological variant?

Story before structure

Over the last couple decades, I have taken classes at a variety of post-secondary centres teaching everything from magazine writing to sketch writing to screenwriting, and one thing has always amazed and frustrated me about the majority of my classmates: They all think they are going to finish the class with a template for success.

For some reason, they believe that there is an inherent structure for a successful story that they can just drape story elements over. If I can just map out the three-act structure, I will win that Academy Award.

When in your lives have you ever walked out of a class with a structure for success? Ever! Ever!

Even the alphabet was merely a building block to communication. Please let me know who has gotten a job and achieved a pinnacle of success through the strict application of the alphabet as taught in pre-K or kindergarten. The alphabet is useless unless you rearrange and duplicate some of the letters, and even then there is more to it.

Don’t ask the instructor on what page the Act I turning point should come because not all screenplays are 110 pages and not all stories have their Act I turning point at the 25% point of the screenplay. (If you want your head to explode, try figuring out the Act I turning point of the movie Memento.)

Write the story that demands to be written, regardless of the canonical film, novel or sketch structure. Let the story and its characters tell you when things should happen. Luckily, because few of us still spit charcoal onto our hands against rock walls, we can easily move the elements of our story around later.

You can have the strongest architecture in the world, but if your story sucks, your screenplay sucks. If your characters aren’t truthful to themselves and your story, no one will believe them. Much as a roadmap doesn’t a vacation make, neither does a story structure a story make.

We learn these elements, the points in our writing, as guiding principles for our own thoughts, not as immovable stone markers for what must be.

When used correctly, this information can enhance a beautiful story, but when used as a crutch, it destroys creativity; we focus too much on the next point and not enough on the journey.

Write your play. Write your novel. Write your screenplay. Write your poem. Write your story.

Once you’ve done that, then check the beams and girders of your construction to make sure everything is exactly where it needs to be for the sake of that story.