All Out Of Ink

May 7, 2011

Can You Say “Mama?” (or, The Words You Don’t Have)

Filed under: Writing Tips — Laynie @ 10:08 pm

Em is a little over a year and a half old. (Almost 20 months, for those of you who divide by 12 easily.) She has words she likes to say. She enjoys using the words she knows. I’ve caught her falling asleep at naptime singing “Juice, dog, cookie, moon, juice, Dad, cat, ball…” though it seems her favorite song is “Cookie cookie cookie….” When she wants to know what something is, she asks, “Dat?” When she wants to be picked up, she asks “Up?” And when she wants to be put down, she asks, “Up?”

So we’re still working on a few things.

I think she gets aggravated sometimes with the number of words she doesn’t know. Sometimes, she’ll pick up something she knows the word for, such as her stuffed cat, frown at it, and tentatively try a word that isn’t right. “No,” I can see her face say, “That’s not it.” And she’ll try again. And again. I can see her confusion, her frustration, as she realizes she can’t remember. That’s a frustration I wouldn’t will on anyone.

It’s also a frustration I know all too well as a writer. “There’s a word for that,” I frequently say. “There’s a better way to say this.”

I try a word, a phrase, a paragraph, a few pages… only to come back to my original problem. I just know there’s a way to say this, and it is illuding me.

The first bit of advice I have is not to get hung up on that one thing. Give it some thought, frown over it a little. And then, move on. Like they used to tell you in school, if you don’t know the answer, skip that one and come back to it later. There’s no reason to let go of everything past this snag. Make a note in the margin, leave yourself a parenthetical message in the text, draw a blank line where that bit should go, and move along. After it sits in your mind a while, the right words might come to you. If not, you can struggle over it later when the next section of your piece is not at stake.

The next suggestion I have is to try saying it the wrong way. If you know there’s a right way but you can’t remember how, then put down the wrong thing and tell yourself you’ll come back to it later. When you look at it again, you might realize the “wrong” way is closer to your original intent than you thought.

Another (rather novel) idea: Look it up. For those times when it is a single word, I have a couple of best friends. Dictionary and Thesaurus. When it’s not convenient to lug extra books (even small ones) or I’m too lazy to walk across the room for them, I pull up for all my spelling, definition, and thesaurical needs. (No, thesaurical is not a word. I’m taking my own advice and saying it the wrong way because I’m not sure there is a word for that.) I like that site in particular because it is easy to remember, and it has dictionary entries from several sources for each word. Plus, you can click the Thesaurus tab at the top to switch instead of having to pull up another page. I’m all for simplicity. It saves time. And as we know, when the baby wipes are being gleefully yanked out of the package one by one, every second counts.

The bottom line here is that writers have moments like Em does, where we know there’s a way to express ourselves, but it’s just out of reach. There are words we don’t have, but that doesn’t mean we will never have them. Even if we keep stumbling over the same snag over and over, we’ll eventually get it. Just like one day, Em will point to me and say “Mama,” instead of “Dat?” She knows what I am. She just doesn’t have that word yet.



  1. failed me! LOL Seems ‘illuding’ came up as not being a word. I thought you were going for eluding which would also make sense in that sentence. Illuding changes the meaning slightly but significantly. While one means to simply escape, the other means to mock. Had to broaden my ‘go to’ horizons for words. It annoys me that always wants you to pay for access to more words. I think I will stick with the new one I found, I may also check out the one you suggested. Thanx! 🙂

    Comment by Razer — May 7, 2011 @ 10:45 pm | Reply

  2. I’m not saying I never make mistakes. In informal communication or relaxed communication, I’m also not as careful as I am in, say, research writing. But I had the word I wanted this time! I’m glad I helped you broaden your resources.

    Comment by Laynie — May 8, 2011 @ 9:00 am | Reply

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