I’m reading this book about layoffs in America, how they got to be the rule rather than the exception, and how devastating they are to the collective self-esteem of the work force, even while individual workers recognize their layoffs are the result of a host of issues outside of individual performance, like outsourcing and downsizing. Cheery stuff. Then something seemingly unrelated happened. My mom caught an error in a story after I’d already sent it to a couple of literary magazines. I used spading a cat when I should have used spaying a cat. That wasn’t accidental. That was a word I didn’t know.
I started writing out of a desire to be a storyteller, but something happened to me that I think happens to all writers. I became interested in words. I began to enjoy words. I once read words should be divided up into words you know, words you think you know, and words you don’t know. Look up the words you think you know just as you would the words you don’t know. I found that to be quite useful advice. I’ve learned numerous things about words I thought I knew by following that advice. It’s also utter nonsense. How do you know if you know a word or think you do?
I would have put spade in the category of a word I knew until the other day when I discovered I only thought I knew it. So this story I’d pieced together over the course of five months that I was enormously proud of and even slightly hopeful might be accepted by a literary magazine turned with that one word into an example of how terrible a writer I am. It lasted about a day. It’s even a common error. It’s a word people hear frequently but don’t read often. The kind of misspelling that might have been adapted into the language except that spade already has another meaning. The error doesn’t ruin the story and it certainly shouldn’t damage my feeling of accomplishment in writing that story much less my fifteen-plus year writing career, but it did. Why?
If a magazine loves the story they can certainly correct that word before print. As I said, it’s a common error but that probably doesn’t work in my favor. The more common the error the more likely someone reading it will be to lump me in with “those writers” who don’t care about language or pay attention to words. The ones who deserve the collection of rejection slips they’re compiling while all the good and deserving writers are getting their work placed. Because just like the responsibility is put on workers to acquire new skills and be better as a response to massive layoffs, the responsibility is on writers to be perfect because for some reason we know that there is a limited number of spots, but we can never feel that’s the reason why. It has to be us.