I’m a crappy speller. This fact often surprises people, since I’m a writer. It surprised them even more when I worked as an editor. I would explain that my focus was more big-picture: things like content, structure, and clarity. I fixed grammar and spelling mistakes when I found them, but those details were really the purview of the proofreader.
A writer’s finished products need to be spelled perfectly, but it’s fine to get outside help. And these days, for me, that help is usually, literally, right at hand, in the form of the spell-check on my favorite word processor. For proper nouns, or words I’ve mangled so badly even Word can’t decipher them, I use Google. Thank God for the feature that lets you type any damned approximation of what you’re trying to say into the search bar, to be answered by the oh-so-tactful, “Did you mean…?” Way better than that know-it-all bitch and her condescending “recalculating” on my GPS. But I digress.
Do you need to spell well in order to write well? My mother told me no. And she was a librarian. “Marcel Proust was a terrible speller,” she reassured me. I still keep this fact close to my heart. It doesn’t just erase the stigma of those horrendous spelling-test scores, but is also, obviously, a clue to my secret genius.
My mother also liked to blame my trouble on the fact that when I was 7 and 8, and just learning to write, we were living in France. She claimed that I’d internalized rules like needing to add an E after any final consonant that wasn’t supposed to be silent, and that for years after we returned to the States, I was still describing the sky as “bleu.” Her theory has provided lots of excuses to brag about the portion of my childhood I spent abroad. Like what I’m doing right now, for example. But I don’t think my waywardness with words can be really be diagnosed as a case of permanent orthographic jet lag.
The real problem, I believe, is that I don’t see words in my head. I hear them. That’s why I do things like mix up my bees and pees, label the device that broadcasts wifi in our home as a “rowder,” and view so many unstressed vowels as basically arbitrary. After 30 years of marriage, David understands this so well that all I have to say is, “If you wanted to spell humorous,” for him to answer, “o, and then ou.”
These questions usually come up when I’m doing a crossword puzzle. That’s how I spend my free time, when I’m not playing Scrabble or Words With Friends on line. Besides all the business of scoring and strategizing, of solving clues and remembering stray facts, I love turning the jumbled nonsense of my tiles into nuggets of meaning. And I love taking my absolutely sharp Dixon Ticonderoga #2, and filling those inviting blank squares with the most perfect block letters I can form.
Why would some who can’t spell get such pleasure from playing with letters? I find one possible answer in the place I so often look: Judaism. Traditional Torah study reduces the words of scripture to the level of spelling. By breaking words down into individual letters, or rearranging a few vowels, the Rabbis read hidden meanings in the text. Jewish numerology, or gematria (a word I just searched for as “gamatria,” only to be politely asked, “Did you mean gematria?”), assigns each letter a numerical value, calculates the value of words or phrases, and finds mystical significance in the results. Jews like to give money in multiples of 18, because that’s the numerological value of “chai,” the Hebrew word for “life.” Convoluted calculations link the number 613 (the number of commandments Moses conveys from God in the Torah) to the number of major bones and organs in the body, and the numerological value of Judaism’s central prayer, the “Shema.”
What I find most revealing about these exercises isn’t the hidden meanings they presumably uncover, but the impulse behind the search. The Rabbis were awed by a God they envisioned divulging sublime secrets within a complex system of linguistic clues. I look at the sublime system that is language, and am similarly awed.
Think about it. There’s this set of abstract squiggles that we have agreed as a community to assign value to, and have preserved and perfected and passed along from one generation to the next. Anyone who wants to communicate meaning — news, desires, theories, gossip, poems, apologies, prayers, jokes – has only to arrange these squiggles in the right order. The number of meanings the squiggles can convey is infinite. If that’s not awesome, I don’t know what is.
I may not always know which letters belong where, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love them. And just as the Rabbis expressed their love of God through word play, I celebrate my love for reading and writing and by savoring the stuff they’re made of. For me, filling blank squares with beautiful block letters can feel as reverential as stopping to admire an unusual tree, or pausing to appreciate the bread I’m about to eat.