Writers on Writing #57: Sarah J. Sloat
The Inner Rodent
Reaching for toothpaste in the bathroom cabinet this morning, I glanced past a plastic vial of liquid. It was a squat bottle with a squeeze-drop top. And because I was not really looking at it, and because I did not really care, and because the mind will always rush to fill in the blanks, what I saw was a bottle of Apocalypse Oil.
It is ill-advised to overlook Apocalypse Oil. That’s why, for months now, I’ve been keeping a log of misreadings. I started when it occurred to me that seeing the wrong word invariably made a text more interesting. The liquid in my cabinet, for instance, was appliance oil, made by Braun, manufacturer of electric razors, coffee crushers and other household gadgets. But for a moment I had the end of the world at my fingertips.
Misreadings come from skimming a passage or phrase, rather than attentively reading. Or sometimes they come when you expect to see a certain word, so you do. The brain insists. A misreading can also be a kind of Freudian slip - the mind interferes with the eyesight, stepping in to spot something that, on second look, proves to be another thing altogether.
Pear is a Mind Killer
Waiting for the subway the other day, I saw a man in a black t-shirt that said “Pear Is A Mind Killer.” Whoa, I thought. Pear! Not one of Wallace Stevens’s curvy yellow pears, but a toxic variety. On closer look, I saw it was fear that threatened the mind, and felt cheated.
“Every surprise changes the world,” wrote the aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. In the case of misreadings, the surprise opens the possibility of an alternative world, one in which a clutch of attorneys might “spend the afternoon stargazing in the library,” rather than strategizing, as attorneys in our world are wont to do.
Positive or negative, there is something refreshingly jarring about the unexpected. Good writers do it by thwarting reader expectations. But in the case of misreadings, not the writer but the reader delivers the surprise. The reader’s mind switches out the details. It lapses. It sees what it wants to see. Not only does it overlook, it compensates and embellishes. The misled mind is creative. It doesn’t take words at face value but gets involved, creating a personal subtext.
How Rodent, the Artist
Sometimes a misreading reveals a truth you knew was there, one you’d been looking for, and now found, paradoxically, in a text misconstrued. This one was from a novel I read about a twisted pianist: “How rodent the artist remained despite basking in adulation.” This phrasing hit on something so accurate, I was disarmed by how well and how directly the writer expressed it. Beneath our achievements, we all remain somewhat rodent. My inner rat and its fetid sniveling will never be completely hidden.
This revelation stayed with me even though when I read the sentence a second time I realized it said “how modest the artist remained,” not how rodent. The misreading uncovered something I had long understood but could not articulate until my mistake did it for me.
Kafka Was Here
“Man Grieves Over the Body of a Reptile” read the caption below a photo of a man, clearly distraught, hunched over a corpse in the summer of Egypt’s unrest. The body lay beneath a sheet, but if it were a reptile, it was a huge one. What kind of reptile was it and why was the man so attached to it? It was absurd. It was indeed absurd, and no reptile but a relative. As my puzzlement dissolved, I was left only with the guilt of inadvertent humor.
But here, too, there was something worth discovering in the misreading. In another context it could work to take a text involving unloved relatives and transform them into reptiles. Ask any estate lawyer: there are those who are that cold, that low-down and unlovable.
It is not hard to imagine that Gregor Samsa, too, the traveling salesman who awoke one morning to find himself transformed into a monstrous vermin, might have been born of an orthographic mix-up.
Pear and fear, modest and rodent, reptile and relative: misreadings occur when words share a similar architecture. Their landscapes mimic each other and stretch out to comparable lengths.
Architecture had a heavy hand in the case of the powerful vulgarities. In the headline “Mexican Vulgarities Take Over Town,” it struck me as racist to single out vulgarities, however pernicious, by nationality, especially in a headline. In the straitjacket of politically correct culture, the vulgarities’ nationality would be lower down in the article, like a footnote.
And in this case, the writer couldn’t mean Mexican, but Spanish, unless he was describing gestures rather than words. I returned to the sentence doubting the adjective, and was corrected instead on the subject: it was vigilantes who took over the town, not vulgarities. What a let-down, though it may be easier to overthrow vigilantes than to root out entrenched vulgarities.
A like architecture is rich source of misreadings. For instance, the headline of a newspaper story read, “Workers go on strike for better conditions and overtime joy.” This seemed worthwhile, but on second glance, the last word turned out to be the mundane and predictable pay. And elsewhere, on a restaurant blackboard, the cook was offering hot dogs with “a nazi-portion of fries.” I found this outrageous, and knew either I’d bungled the phrase or the cook had sloppy handwriting. A double-take showed the fries were being served in an unhealthy but less sinister maxi-portion.
“International Dictionaries Gather for Thatcher Funeral”
Besides the shape of words, misreadings happen when the mind imagines it sees a more common word in place of the unusual one the writer has chosen, thought not because the more common word makes sense. Such was the case with the traveling dictionaries.
Of their own accord, dictionaries would be hard-pressed to gather for the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. With this error, I assume my eyes did not compute dignitaries right off, running into it infrequently. The online tool Wordcount (www.wordcount.org) pegs dictionary as the 4,573rd most common word in its data bank, while dignitary ranks 78,067th.
Frequency also had a hand in a weather-related misreading: “February brought uninterpreted snowstorms.” Here I imagined meteorologists standing at the windows of their lookouts, asking themselves, “This snow, what can it all mean?” An entertaining thought, except the storms were uninterrupted, not difficult to decipher. According to Wordcount, interpretation is the 2,329th most common word, while interruption is 9,725th.
As a poet, I can’t help but think there’s a poem in it. Writers obsess on snow, taking turns interpreting it as veil, as curtain, powdered milk, erasure, lace, death, redemption, dandruff, etc. Maybe my misreading is a gift, the core of a poem that begins, “Because I could not read the snow...”
Freud has already come up, and let’s admit the sex-saturated unconscious also exerts power over the mind and vision. At first glance, Virginia will always be vagina for me. “Vagina is for lovers.” And not only does Virginia magically morph into genitalia, so does enigma, at least when I stumbled across it in the heading, “The Female Enigma.” Not that “The Female Vagina” isn’t redundant, but as linguists say, so is all of language, and in this case this was the word my mind insisted on seeing.
The Forest for the Trees
When it gets late and “wind tears the leaves from the goblets along the road,” I wonder who put those goblets there, and how can such vessels flourish without roots? Of course I put the goblets there, ignoring the poplars that had a more natural claim on the spot. Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem “The Guitar” also has a line in which “the goblets of the dawn break,” and it makes sense, uniquely. I’ve never second-guessed his goblets. I, too, shall let my goblets stand.
Despite the overlap of switched-out words like goblet and poplar, architecture alone can’t explain every trompe l’oeil the mind springs on the reader. And who wants it to? Why I see the headline “School Using Bulletproof Whiteboards” as “School Using Waterproof Bullets” is a mystery to me. And I enjoy having some mystery in my transactions with the world. It rewards me by laying a startling surprise at my feet that feeds my imagination, which I’m thankful for, and of which I take due note.
Sarah J. Sloat grew up in New Jersey and has lived for many years in Germany, where she works in news. Sarah’s poems have appeared in Bateau, Harper’s Ferry Review and Court Green. She has published two chapbooks with Dancing Girl Press, “Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hair” and “Inksuite.” Another chapbook, “Homebodies,” is available from Hyacinth Girl Press.