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Exalting Towers



Preface & Reader Response

In my erratic and inglorious publishing career, error has continually stalked me.




by Jerry Murley

Out goblins and sprites, ye bearers of errors, disturbers of nights.

Time was, in days of rented houses, when one entered a dark kitchen and flipped on the light, roaches scurried for cover – flaws fostered and concealed by plenty. Nowadays, when one descends into the archives – the catacombs of acts – one grasps deformity and mischief running riot. Faults lie for newfound focus but recede to common root: they swell then fade when cast in natural sight.

* * *

My perspective is a bit different. But I imagine that many people don't write or publish – or otherwise publicly speak – because of a fear of error. A dread of rejection or a healthy sense of propriety and privacy, a lack of interest or nothing to say – these are other prominent, and understandable, reasons.

I was not a strong early reader. I labored to read everything assigned to me in school but little more until college. During my college years, I did read a lot but nowhere near what avid readers, and most of my friends, did. Speed of reading and attention span were issues. Once I vowed to read War and Peace during a two-week driving trip to California in December 1972. I calculated how many pages I had to read per day, and even then I had to make daily treks to the Santa Monica library to find enough quiet in sunny California to slog my way through a Russian winter.

Phonetic reading? Are you kidding me? I do not read or spell phonetically. If I cannot picture a word, it barely exists. Of all places, it was a church-related summer class in Houston, Texas, when I was in about the 8th grade, that I first heard the phrase "read phonetically." I didn't learn much in those few days except to be a little more self-conscious about my secret limitation. Daily seventh-grade trips to a remedial reading class and a witty college professor's comment about leaden reading of German literature aloud helped bookend my life-long aversion to public reading. I am a halting reader and a plodding speaker – but not in my silent scribe or polemic-reading modes. On the plus side of this deficiency and habit, I read each and every word, and I spend some time thinking about what I am reading as I go and afterwards.

Though my beginnings were slow and unentertaining, I always made very good grades in school, especially in college. I think that my lateness in coming to reading and writing, and an exposure to foreign languages, such as Latin in high school, German in college, Italian in Italy, and Spanish in Latin America, disposed me to treasure words as mystical keys – gifts of God. My favorite book is a huge unabridged dictionary that I found in a second-hand store for five dollars. It is a copy of Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language (1910). [1] The leather cover has been slowly crumbling since I bought it in 1974 on Poplar Avenue in downtown Memphis. I love spending time with this book and am overwhelmed by the unknown meanings of words that I thought that I knew well.

Most of my life, my father encouraged me to write and to be creative in using words. He delighted in puns and writing occasional poems and songs. Since I have known him, my father has ever been about word play. He was always willing to proofread my big papers for college. He was our resident expert on plain-spoken and humorous correspondence.

In my erratic and inglorious publishing career, error has continually stalked me. Not heeding the wise advice to prospective fools to avoid defending themselves in a court of law, I have mostly been without an editor, save for myself and the cautious, and not completely willing, assistance of my well-read wife. Once she has cast the shade of unreadable upon a passage, it stays marked until it is excised or re-written – or rashly pushed out the birth canal in its rawest form. The face-to-face stare of common sense is an insuperable barrier for the exuberant writer lost on his own trail.

Words are like tiny, svelte, transitory pets to me: I love having them scamper around the house in detachment, wandering in favorite rooms, hiding in cozy corners, lounging on the furniture, lazily drifting like motes in the air on a sunny afternoon. But every now and then, they poke fun and prompt carelessness: one will pee on the carpet or another will sprinkle havoc throughout a developing document. These little natural accidents are very embarrassing but not debilitating to me. On many occasions I am the one who awakes with a shutter of recollection in the middle of the night or who reads the glaring error as words stream speedily through a printing press. When I can fix my messes, I do. But when it is costly to correct, I just accept the bruising and the minor humiliation as a good lesson and move on. Though as yet undeterred, a reacquaintance with forgotten errors haunts me and the specter of stupid oversights to come impede me, ever threatening my morale with melodramatic ruin.

It is amazing how often one thinks one recalls just the right word. But then one discovers that one has either mistaken its spelling, misunderstood its meaning, or substituted a similar word for the correct one, lending the results a slightly comical turn, the atmosphere a mysterious air, and the meaning a sometimes cunning lift – if it does not leave the phrase deflated or wholly void.

One instance in particular of microscopic public disgrace comes to mind. When I wrote an essay in Center City about the long-running I-40 controversy in Memphis regarding Overton Park, I used the word (non-word) "noisie" instead of "noisy." [2] It's easier to brush such mistakes off when there is a typesetter in the middle of the process, as there was then, but it becomes much less easy to do so when one is not only the writer, but the editor, typesetter, paste-up artist, printer, and paperboy as well.

I promptly received and unsigned postcard from a reader pointing out that spelling lapse, saying nothing else about the editorial, the controversy, or the publication in general. That singular, anonymous, nitpicking instance about misspelling noisy is admittedly a rare, extreme example of the frustrating experience of one who voluntarily stands partially exposed to the public. That reader's curt missive managed to be utterly petty and insignificant and peculiarly obsessive, without the slightest effort at being helpfully corrective or demonstrating a fraction of the capability required to share a pittance of observation dealing with the content or context of the essay. Apparently such a person can concentrate on little more when confronted with a blemish than making it an angry pimple in the imagination, a Godzilla staggering savagely across the printed page. A list of misspellings and misuses, a crumb of wit, could have been more engaging and human, if not more memorable. For a contributor compelled to also type and edit many writings, it is humbling enough to witness on a daily and weekly basis the fine ideas, styles, and competencies of one's peers and collaborators, to say nothing of the often eloquent and incisive contributions of so-called average men and women who warmly, and self-identifyingly, comment about a shared experience in a public forum in gracious response to what they have been offered free of charge. Such anonymous snippings about form, in themselves devoid of content and originality, are the absolute worst sort of gnat-biting reaction to any creative effort: a pox cast upon the house of dialogue and liberal expression. Despite all the enjoyment and learning of years in publishing in the minor leagues, this one pinprick of meanness and spite relentlessly comes to mind when I use the word "noisie."

My most intelligent friends (you know who you are) have the good breeding and savoir faire not to bluntly point out such things to my face. However, I wish they would point out the obvious mistakes at times. For many sound reasons, most don't volunteer corrections. I can generally rely on my wife and my father to let me know of (what we have euphemistically come to refer to as) "typos." There is a wide range of approaches between tactfully pointing out possible mistakes in a helpful spirit and doing so in a snide, delighted cruelty as if a comeuppance. I remember no other sneering, sarcastic letters to the editor when I wrote essays for and edited the Center City news sheet, though a few responses were weak if not pathetic, never daring to venture into public commitment or communication. Only a special few have the guts or care to write a reasoned rebuttal to statements casually tossed around in a small, obscure publication. Apparently, it is quite easy for some to point out that someone's zipper is loose without endeavoring a civil word further.

* * *

What can I say? When I first splattered myself on the page in public in my early twenties, I had no background in reporting and had no intention of learning to be one in broad daylight: I am more fond of impressionism loosely tethered to selected facts. Yet I did try it anyway because I believed in something. I assumed that I knew the spelling of common words and I did not consult a dictionary as often as I should have. There was no spell checker in those days and no computer, no easy way to spot or correct a laboriously typed manuscript on a deadline. In those years, my wife-to-be worked full time as a school teacher and had not the time nor the inclination to peruse every jewel that dripped from my leaky pen. In the early days, there was an intermediate step through a small printing company's typist, who probably corrected my errors rather than making new ones. So, errors happened just like other things happen. But most, if not all, I fully admit, were my fault and my responsibility. Today, looking back, I am astonished at the misspellings. I dare not look too closely for fear of what menacing creatures I will find.

Heck, I once misspelled the word "nickel" with an "h" in the subheading for an editorial about taxation. [3] (What stings the most is that no one seems to have noticed it for 36 years.) In a humorous short poem for PINCH, I spelled "pigeon" as "pidgeon"; this made the piece funny in a way I had not intended. [4] Now that common word, I thought, was one I did look up in the dictionary, but apparently, in addition to neglecting to read the definition, I fused the spelling with the word "pidgin," putting a spicy linguistic spin on the word play.

Having recently reread a few of my editorials, lengthy articles, and serious letters (that sound as if they were editorials), I have found that my most common misspelling or misapplication was the use of the word "principle" when I should have used "principal" instead. The principal reason I offer for misusing the word "principle" is my admiration for its meaning (to me personally) as first and foremost among purposes and desirable characteristics. "Principal" always reminded me of the stern, paddle-wielding ogres who headed junior high schools in my day. I guess I reflexively rejected the word, casting it out of my contorted vocabulary.

Computerized spell-checking was a dangerous addition to the process of writing. I have learned the hard way that it is no substitute for proofreading and paying attention while doing so. Too often "to" passes for "too" and so on. Punctuation is another dragon: typically, I have two ways of dealing with commas: to few or to many – oops, too few or too many. Proofreading, in fact, is one of the most laborious but improving activities that I do when writing. It draws the process out, but without it I would write much more awkwardly and repetitively and derive less pleasure and little nourishment from the exercise.

Penning in an editorial voice is an exhilarating (if delusional) masquerade. (Editorial exposition for an anonymous audience is an excellent preparation for the tedium of daily business communication.) Rereading old Center City editorials, I still relish the public digs at the powers that be. Reading such spirited innocence (misadventure as some might say) is like an encounter with the low-level work of an early-18th-century essayist or preacher: rife with spontaneous, unreferential spelling; unruly capitalization; free-form, logic-defying punctuation; ponderous syntax; posturing pitch; and an absolute absence of deference for the established pecking order. But I concede that misspellings and comma malfunctions spoil the effect and evoke a slow-fading cringe.

* * *

It is relatively easy to spot flaws in someone else's person, complexion, manners, and expressions, though it is not polite nor magnanimous to try too hard to do so. But one's own blemishes, due to habit and misconception, are slower in revealing themselves. In self examination one should avoid bright-lit mirrors and magnifying glasses. To reread an old published work is to be first struck with horror, then dismay, then humiliation, and, if lucky, a sense of the humor in one's own fallibility and public pratfalls. If there is no public ear, is there error? To a balanced, reflective man, falling short of intentions rankles whether noted beyond the private realm or not. The public is larger than extant humanity: it is cosmic, out of nowhere and timeless, even when the task and results are miniscule and recognized as such at the time.

For some, tone and topic should be considered among my failings. There are bugs in the ointment there, too. If I include late-life writing, I confess that I am overly inclined toward personal revelation, puffing up followed by self-effacement, and the sophomoric amusement of abusing authority, neglect, inconsistency, pretense, and hypocrisy. Short, unwavering declarations of opinion disguised as fact pop up now and then. Moreover, there is the problem of eliminating and rearranging the shards of brilliance gathered from days and weeks of committing words, phrases, and sentences to tiny scraps of paper that pile up in my desk folder. I am reluctant to send these poor lonely children away to boarding school for further maturity or to invest thinly related tangents in a deposit box for future reference. It takes much time and patience to piece together a smooth flow from a flooded stream. Harsher critics might say my discourse is similar to a pent-up, improvised bottle rocket that whistles loudly in its twisted ascent only to fall to ground blackened and mute. For all these reasons, my essays must be brief enough for me to seize a single image of the entire organization so that I can hold it up to better scrutiny – a skull to slowly ponder. To my dismay, a more apt analogy prevails: a Christmas tree around which I walk hanging favored ornaments here and there – a tangle wrapped in a gnarl tied with a knot topped with an assemblage of deviations. Thus, we arrive at the chief liability of Internet publications: they lack the confinements of particular audience and the constraints of space, time, focus, and commonality of a weekly newspaper.

I wouldn't know how to handle being really good at any one thing. Upbringing, and the strictures imposed on me by myself, demand that any perceived success be followed by an instant public plummet or a drawn-out fizzle. I am not rare in this regard. Success is something widely pursued, but we never actually want to achieve it, with the consequent disarray and distortion that we imagine notable success brings. Like most folks, I perform much better lightly blanketed in doubts and restrictions than awash in high expectations and unlimited resources.

* * *

Besides misspelling and missteps in punctuation and style in writing, another grave error in personal expression is the reluctance (or inability) to use words that one knows are better suited for a given situation. It is a particularly regrettable act when one avoids the usage of a better word due to a lack of practice and the fear of malapropisms or the appearance of showiness. This is a dumbing-down of a different warp. I am no word worshipper. Nor am I faddish. I am not above creating a word when a better one doesn't come to mind, if my limited familiarity with Latin, prefixes, and suffixes convince me that an average intellect should be able to decipher the meaning quickly. Often better words just do not exist and one cannot wait for evolution. However, I do not hunt tiger with a Thesaurus: a quick look at a good dictionary after thinking of the right word naturally is the best way to avoid artificial and ridiculous display. Most English speakers would be awed by the number of colorful and multi-dimensional words one can stumble across in a thick unabridged dictionary. If mine was not so heavy and rigid, I would try it as a pillow, in hopes that I would more easily absorb the tongues of the ages. Sometimes, in a strait, I appeal to the democracy of Google to resolve an ambiguous usage: if one combination has millions more hits than another, the market has spoken for good or ill. All this is why unrestricted word play before an audience at home or among friends is needed. My wife gets put out with both my banter and my twilight silences, but that is what spouses are for: to channel their mates within a socially tolerable range of behavior.

No error of mine in publication has been so egregious as to merit a full-fledged retraction or public apology, though equal time was offered to silently aggrieved parties if they wanted to reasonably express an opposing argument. I don't remember any demand that something be singled out for complete public correction, except for the last feature article left by my predecessor for my first issue at Center City. That story connected cockroaches with the subterranean designs of the playboys at the Memphis Chamber of Commerce. [5] Space was given for rebuttal. But the little drawing of a cockroach crawling over the page of the original article could not be easily expunged from memory; that slight graphical touch distilled the absurdity and subterfuge better than the words of either the feature story or the refutation. One of the chief advantages of using the Web for the publication of a journal, other than lower costs, is the ability to easily and inexpensively slip in early in the morning and set right those usages, spellings, and factual errors that sneak up on quick-draw editorialists. Still the roaches of error creep into one's brain in the dead of night to make one squirm until things are set right.

To be wrong is an obvious error. To be wrong and proud of it only doubles the embarrassment. Being correct and prematurely cocksure is a common flaw of youth. But without that flaw, youth would be stymied from breaking fresh ground. Not recognizing youthful flaws as an adult is a blindness that magnifies early error. The adult who cannot acknowledge his youthful folly and smile is burdened with a nagging, exaggerated sense of inadequacy for life.

As for other less harmless mistakes: The outstanding flaw is to not have tried at all or to have hurried into action. There are topics that drive one to do things quickly. I am usually much better off if I jot down ideas for the sake of aiding my memory later and then sleep on it. If an idea survives one night's sleep, it has a chance of surviving another. Then there are good ideas that are forgotten within 24 hours or deemed too complex to begin. Though not executing an idea is not always a mistake, there are certainly omissions that would have served someone well. I like nothing better than for someone to comment with, "I enjoyed that story": that's the kind of treat trained monkeys relish but seldom think genuine. There is a delicate balance between getting a treat now and then and keeping tricky roaches contained.

* * *


1. Here are other dictionaries I use: Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (1966) in the living room; a The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, The Unabridged Edition (1967) in my computer room; and a Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1965) next to my computer. The older unabridged dictionary is in my office at work. If a word joined the family of acceptable or appealing terms since the late 1960s, I try to ignore it or consult the democracy of the Internet if I cannot find convincing reference otherwise.

2. Years before my appearance downtown, the real people for Memphis stood united and won – again and again: one small squeak for nature amid the cacophony and mayhem of expressway traffic and politics. Find more about it on page three of Center City, Vol. I, No. 41 (October 16, 1974).

3. Apparently, my five-cents' worth of opinion did not equal a "nichel," as demonstrated in the taxation editorial found on page three of Center City, Vol. II, No. 9 (March 6, 1975).

4. Here is a link to the sloppy pigeon in "PAUSE" found in the "WORDS WORDS" section on page four of PINCH, June 1977.

5. Here is a link to "Marcou, O'Leary & the cockroaches" found on page three of Center City, Vol. I, No. 31 (August 7, 1974). The "typos" are courtesy of the printing company typesetter and, I suppose, the brand spanking new editor: me;)


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