Building a writing nest, word by word

Next month, I’m teaching a class in creativity at the California Writers Club, Mount Diablo Branch, in Pleasanton. For the flyer, they asked me to sum up my writing philosophy in two sentences, and this is what I came up with: “Every breath I take changes me. Every word I utter changes the world.”

It would be great if a lot of people came to listen to me, but what I am going to say boils down to this: If you want to be a writer, get yourself a notebook. Me, I prefer the hardbound kind, with graph paper pages. And a pen that feels balanced in my hand, and whose ink I like, usually purple. And never throw a notebook away.

Two weeks ago, I published the answers to my annual trivia contest, which was taken mainly from notes I’d scribbled in my notebook’s margins. In one corner was “Ukiah haiku,” which I’d realized was a palindrome.

After Brian and I left New York in the early 1990s, my friend Amanda met and fell in love with Ann. Nice lady. Creative. She’d been a scene painter for shows like “Saturday Night Live.” They moved to a little town where a lot of lesbians live in the Catskills, which Amanda referred to as the Swish Alps. They had a porch, which I decided was perfect for garden gnomes.

Ann named the first gnome I sent Pierre. She and Pierre sat on the porch enjoying a bit of Port as they listened to the Stony Clove Creek skitter down the mountain. Occasionally, Ann and Pierre created a haiku, or a palindrome, or a haiku palindrome, and sent it to me on a postcard: “Ed, I saw Harpo Marx ram Oprah W. aside.”

Every writer I know is a magpie. We collect shiny words, stuff them under our wings, and hope to build a nest. We love the funkiness of language. And it’s a Chronicle tradition. Leah Garchik has called it public eavesdropping.

I am no Herb Caen. Aided by Strange de Jim, the Chronicle legend peppered his columns with “Namephreaks,” which were in fact “aptronyms,” where a person’s name matched, or wildly mismatched, their profession. People like Jonathan Law, Attorney. Or Dr. Nurse. … My favorite was the Roman Catholic cardinal named Sin.

I am no Jon Carroll. Jon loved mondegreens, and the ratio seemed to be that for every two cat columns there was at least one mondegreen. We can thank Sylvia Wright for that term, in an essay she wrote in 1954. She described the mondegreen as a phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung. (She’d heard a bit of a line in the Scottish poem “The Bonny Earl of Murray” — “They hae slay the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green” — as “Lady Mondegreen.”

The Earth, Wind and Fire song “Celebrate, change your thoughts to love,” I heard as “Notre Dame, she’s right above.” The older I got, the more I did this. After an all-night drive to New York to catch one of the last performances of “Evita,” I could have sworn Patti Lupone sang, “Don’t cry for me, Marge and Tina.”

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The past three years of mask mandates and the decline of my hearing have pretty much put the kibosh on my ever not mondegreening a conversation. But I’ve borrowed enough from Mr. Carroll. And my pal Crazy Mike is, at best, a poor man’s Strange de Jim.

So I look for my own words to make my own nest. Sometimes those are portmanteaus. When I could not find enough palindromes about San Francisco, I discovered the “semordnilap.” That’s a word that spells a different word backward, like “dog” is “god” spelled backward. (Moxie insists that “god” is “dog” spelled backward.)

A rebus is a collection of letters and symbols that can make a phrase: NE1 4 10 S = Anyone for tennis? When every letter in the alphabet appears in a sentence, that’s called a pangram: “When zombies arrive, quickly fax Judge Pat.”

If you love a good kangaroo word (one that contains the letters of a synonym), or if you look at license plates and write your own rebuses, you just might be a writer.

So grab a notebook. Or send your bons mots to me. Everybody needs a good Strange de Jim.

Kevin Fisher-Paulson’s column appears Wednesdays in Datebook. Email: