THE RIGHT WORDS

What words would "Mr. Wonderful" say to impress a woman?

What words would “Mr. Wonderful” say to impress a woman?

What would John Bunyan say about Mr. Wonderful's words?

What would John Bunyan say about Mr. Wonderful’s words?

What would a patient Grandpa say to his grandson about fishing?

What would a patient Grandpa say to his grandson about fishing?

In 1871, Lewis Carrolll wrote the nonsense poem, “Jabberwocky.” It begins “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves ~ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe…” It’s a well-known poem, often praised for the flow and sounds of the words, and in every English class there are always some students who swear they understand exactly what Carroll was saying.

Author Roald Dahl (1916-1990) was a prominent novelist, poet and short story writer who was also known for Gobblefunk, his own language. Two examples are “swigpill” (disgusting food), and “splath-winkled” (hurrying about). Despite this special language he scattered through some of his writing, his also wrote this: “Don’t gobblefunk around with words.”

Sometimes words work; sometimes they don’t. All writers know this, and most agree that one place where this is particularly true is when they write dialogue. It either works, or it doesn’t. 

To loosen up the writers in my classes and workshops, I often jumped right into exercises on writing dialogue. My favorite prop was Mr. Wonderful, a 12” doll with a flashy smile, a button-down shirt, khaki pants, and real-tie brown leather shoes. Press the palm of his hand and he said sixteen different phrases—all from the heart—and all as fake as his smile. Two of my favorites were “You know, I think it’s really important that we talk about our relationship,” and “You know, Honey, why don’t you just relax and let me make dinner tonight…and do the dishes.”

It was obvious to both males and females that Mr. Wonderful’s words were stilted and didn’t work.   So the writers were to act as his “coach” and choose any three of his phrases and write what a “real guy” would say. After they’d finished, they were to hand the sheet to another writer who would write what an imaginary Ms. Wonderful would say in response. Everyone relaxed with the dialogue of this fake-to-the-core doll. It was a great way to get started.

Before my mother’s dementia, once when she was visiting I introduced her to Mr. Wonderful. She listened to his phrases and laughed. Then she said that some of the hardest dialogue to write was how children talk, so another exercise for my students could be to write what a young girl or boy would say to Mr. Wonderful, telling him how to dress and what to say. I really liked her idea, and asked if she wanted to try writing some examples.

Mom looked around, shook her head and smiled. In her opinion, the best way to write dialogue was to get comfortable and sit quietly, in a waiting room or a classroom or anywhere adults or children talk and do things. Then listen to what they say, how they pause or move when they say something, if they chatter on and on or speak in short sentences, if they mumble or whine. That’s how you learn to write like people really talk, she said. You listen.

And then she laughed and added that you didn’t want to sit quietly too long. You might fall asleep and then some uppity writer might write about how you sleep with your mouth open or snore.

My mother taught me that getting words right is important, but so is watching and learning. And getting your heart involved, too. As John Bunyan, author of THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, wrote: “In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

The same is true in life.

This "borrows" from Keep Calm and Carry On.  Write your own version, or choose another well-known saying and rewrite it in your style.

This “borrows” from Keep Calm and Carry On. Write your own version, or choose another well-known saying and rewrite it in your style.

 

Use the title of this book. Write for five minutes and tell where the men are.

Use the title of this book. Write for five minutes and tell what happened to the men.

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57 Comments

Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, experiments, lessons about life, special quotations, teaching, writing, writing exercises

57 responses to “THE RIGHT WORDS

  1. I wonder what your mother would have made of Stanley Unwin’s language, Marylin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanley_Unwin_%28comedian%29
    He was very popular on TV when I was a child. Very fluent but mostly unintelligible! I think gobblefunk might be similar. Entertaining at the very least.

  2. This is amazing, Andrew. I’d never heard of Stanley Unwin, but it does seem very much like gobblefunk. Thanks for giving me this link.

  3. You’re speaking my language now, Marylin. How well I remember teaching the proper words of John Bunyan and Lewis Carroll in my literature classes.

    A few days ago when I visited Aunt Ruthie, I brought along my computer so she could view clips of video she took of her students during Hallowe’en and Easter and her family at play. Though she has great memory loss, she spoke just the right words: “These pictures make my mind come alive,” music to my ears.

    Some biblical words that match your theme: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” (Proverbs 25:11)

    This post is spell-binding. And that’s the right word!

    • Any pictures that make the mind come alive are a blessing for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients…and their families. What a wonderful visit that must have made with your Aunt Ruthie, Marian. My mother had a book special quotes and scriptures titled APPLES OF GOLD, and I still remember her making little marks by the ones she especially enjoyed.
      Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Marian.

  4. Don

    Loved your post Marylin. I have to confess that one of the most off putting things for me when reading a novel, is when the dialogue just doesn’t ring true; It spoils everything, no matter how good the plot. Your Mom’s advice is marvellous. Just to listen to the real dialogue around you is the best teacher. I think that’s precisely what some of the best authors do and maybe that’s why we are so quick to pick up on stilted dialogue, because we’re in the midst of real dialogue all the time.

    • I agree, Don. “Real dialogue” is the best teacher for writers, and the fun truth is that even if you want to write quirky, off-beat talk between characters, if you go to a mall or a park or bar and sit and listen for awhile, you can probably find excellent examples.
      And we agree about bad dialogue, too. I can be loving the plot and conflict and overall writing of a good story, then Wham! a scene where the dialogue doesn’t ring true, and it makes me stop cold.

  5. Excellent advice – almost makes me wish I were still teaching English 🙂

    • “Almost” is the operative word for me. 🙂 When I think I miss teaching 150+ h.s. students each day, I stop and remember all the preparations, the hours of grading essays and test, the students who miss several day to go skiing and then come back and say, “What did I miss?”
      30 years was enough. 😉

  6. Your mother is so wise, Marylin. More watching, learning and listening by individuals would help our country, not just the writers. I’ve never heard of the Mr. Wonderful doll…too funny.

    • Before Mom’s dementia, I often thought she’d make a good mayor or council member, Jill. She was an excellent watcher and quiet listener, and if things weren’t fair or needed to be improved, she often had practical, logical and basic solutions to suggest.
      If only we could get a group of life-experienced grandmothers–without Alzheimer’s or dementia, of course–to supervise and nudge the politicians, it might be surprising what could change.

  7. williamsharyn@embarqmail.com

    Hi Marylin,

    I continue to enjoy your weekly posts.

    Also Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. I sure hope that you will all be together next week.

  8. juliabarrett

    Love this post. Jabberwocky is a poem I can repeat to this day– and I don’t know all that many poems by heart, but the sounds Carroll created are sticky. I do like sincere words, even if they are nonsense.
    When I was a kid, Pilgrim’s Progress was one of my favorite books, I think because the sisters in Little Women read it!

    • And in the Little Women book, they referred to it several times. That’s when I began reading PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, too, Julia. But I’m amaze you know all of “Jabberwocky” by heart. I learned the first five or six lines, but that was the limit.

  9. What a delightful read this morning! I never liked Jabberwacky, ever. I hated teaching it and sometimes if time was short–skipped it. Sorry, I know it is popular. What a great writing assignment! I wish I had known it when I was teaching. One of my favorite lessons was comparison and contrast. We worked with vanilla wafers and Oreos. Was kids’ favorite lesson too! And your mother…how wonderful it must have been to have a writing mother to share the journey with as you taught! Now back to the sheetrock dust here. Boo hoo, but you have a lovely November weekend!

    • Any activity involving vanilla wafers and Oreos would have my full attention, Claudia! 😉
      It was wonderful to share writing ideas, exercises, and workshops with my mother. We did two weekend conferences together and shared a dorm room at each one, and we had the best time. Those are the memories that peek in and out as I’m writing.

  10. We often do Jabberwocky at school too. And my son was brought up on Roald Dahl. I still have all the books – most of the others went to the charity shop. Except for AA Milne, of course 🙂

    • I used to have full sets of Trixie Belden mysteries and an assortment of biographies of writers and artists and other books I loved growing up. I stored them in a big box–along with my original Shirley Temple doll–and we put them up in the attic along with all my brother’s baseball cards.
      When we each had children and went to get down the boxes for them, we couldn’t find the boxes anywhere. It’s one of those things we still talk about and shake your heads.
      I’m glad you kept some of your favorites, Jenny.

  11. With apologies to Claudia above, I did like Jabberwocky and the mind had fun imagining what he really meant with the words. Mr. Wonderful of course sounds so insincere he puts the whole male race in jeopardy of being thought that way when we really say it with such sincerity in our voices…….
    Your lessons must have been such fun, especially when your Mom gave the advice about speaking like children and even better, about listening to them to learn. Whether she shares her wise words these days or not, they’re still around and being used.
    xxx Massive Hugs to you Marylin xxx

  12. Poor Mr. Wonderful. Men everywhere probably hate the stereotyping doll, but he certainly evoked some great exercises in writing dialogue.
    When I remember these writing things Mom and I did together and then share them on the blog, it makes them come alive again. I wish she could remember them, too, but this is a second best effort.
    Massive Hugs to you, too, David.

  13. I was brought up in Germany and the german language has so many different dialects, a lot of gobblefunk for me. I love the way my father added a chen to some words to make them cute, Schatz (darling) became Schätzchen ( little darling).
    Another wonderful post. Thank you Marylin and have a wonderful Thanksgiving .

    • And thank you, Gerlinde! My husband speaks some German (he studied in college), and now I can add “chen” to Schatz and impress him. He’ll love it, and I’m very glad you shared that.
      A wonderful Thanksgiving to you, too. 🙂

  14. Wonderful post Marylin! I firmly believe great listeners make great writers. LOVE Bunyan’s quote.

    • And yet, Yolanda, when I hear interviews with some of the VERY successful and famous writers, I have to wonder if they ever listened to anyone but themselves.
      But for the rest of us, yes, really listening will help us be good writers! 🙂

  15. Nancy Parker Brummett

    Words R Us! 🙂 Thanks for such a creative treatise, Marylin.

  16. Love what your mother said. So true. One of the greatest tools a writer can have is to listen and listen well. Thanks for the examples.

  17. Excellent writing prompts, Marilyn. I can imagine your students’ reactions to Mr. Wonderful. That would be a lot of fun. 😉

    Your mother had the right idea about dialogue. To write it well, you really have to listen. I’m afraid that’s a dying art.

  18. It really is, Judy.
    I recently heard about how early computer training–for children as young as 5–has replaced the time that used to be spent on teachers reading aloud to them. Then they would ask questions, talk about details…which encouraged good listening. Now even that much will be gone.

  19. You were a teacher for 30 years? Wow.

    I remember first hearing “Jabberwocky” and being amazed that I could “understand” the story. I thought Carroll was so clever and it really pushed the buttons of my creative side.

    And, just so you know, students at our school love sitting and listening to read-alouds. They all have the latest tech gadgets — even the kindergarten students — but when Mrs. Brace, our librarian, turns on her electric self, they are all ears.

    • Your Mrs. Brace has my appreciation and applause, Darla. In this techno age, anyone who makes sitting and listening to read-alouds a wonderful experience gets an A+ in my book!
      Yes, I taught 30 years, all in high school. Everything from Learning Center through Honors English, American Lit., Senior English, and Writing to Publish (focused creative writing), plus I taught speech and coached Cross-X Debate and Mock Trial.
      What I miss least is getting up at 5:00, being on the road by 6:15, and teaching my first class beginning at 7:05. When friends ask me how long it took me to break the getting-up-very-early habit, I say, “Oh, about one night.” My husband still wakes up at 5:00 (we taught at the same school).

  20. So much for Mr Wonderful, haha 😀 I’ve never heard of him. Is it for real? Just as an aside, it reminds me of a Pee Wee Herman doll my eldest son’s uncle gave him when he was a boy. It scared my son so we put it, still pristine and untouched in its box, in the shed and when we moved I threw it away. Not long after, well, you know what happened to Pee Wee and of course those dolls were suddenly worth a fortune!
    Moving on.. yes, taking the time to really listen, watch and observe is something we could all remember. Integrity goes such a long way and your mom (and you, dear Marylin) have it in bucket loads 🙂

    • Mr. Wonderful is back in his box, teeth gleaming and button down shirt still unwrinkled. I’ve had him for years, and now I’m passing him on to my granddaughter for laughs. She used to love the Talking Elmo–it seems like yesterday–and now she gets Mr. Wonderful.
      Oh, Sherri, a perfectly boxed Pee Wee Herman doll–after the “fall”–would have been worth a lot! It could have gotten you son over his fear when it put him through college. 😉

    • Sherri, I sent you an email with an article about the 4 classic ways to begin any kind of book. See if one of the suggestions helps with what you’re writing about your dad.
      Good luck!

  21. Marylin, I was reading about how Alice in Wonderland started, with the author on a rowboat telling a story about Alice to his niece and nephew, I believe. Isn’t it wonderful how you have added another dimension to this, along with other thoughts here, too. I am sure I don’t want to know about Mr. Wonderful’s choices of words, unless to laugh out loud!

    • He says all this phrases, Robin, that are so stilted, so fake; compliments that if a man said them to you, your first reaction would be to either laugh or shake him and tell him to snap out of it.
      It was a perfect dialogue-writing prompt. Through the years, several writers in my workshops asked how much I’d sell him for. I don’t even remember where I bought him–it was a complete surprise finding such a quirky doll–but I think I paid under $20 for him. I’m glad I never sold him, but he’s never been one of those things you’d try to save in a fire! 😉

      • It is nice to have something intriguing like a Mr. Wonderful to get the writers thinking. Your mother is a wise woman, still teaches you in many ways. The idea of listening and learning how people converse, this was an excellent suggestion. I also liked your idea of writing about the missing men and taking a little saying and changing it up.
        I am so glad that I made you smile or chuckle about Mr. Wonderful. I have a good friend who thinks when I join the Senior Center, becoming a member of one of the groups, this will be when the right man comes along. I found her husband in a video store in 1993, so she ‘owes’ me a ‘find,’ I tell her! She says her husband’s coworkers are all married… no hurry, been single this time for 8 years!
        Hope you have a lovely family gathering this Thanksgiving, filled with new and special moments, along with lots of pleasant memories, Marylin!

      • Just once, the missing men option got a response. It was excellent and very surprising, and the writer told me recently that she’s thought of that prompt many times to jump start poetry ideas. So you never know.
        Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family, too, Robin.

  22. Ah-h! “Doublethink” (from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four) ‘the art of simultaneously accepting two mutual contradictory beliefs as correct’.
    So I accept that words are important and yet at the same time accept the importance of (sometimes) not actually saying those words.

    • Jane, I your writing talents show up in amazing places! I keep thinking about your vivid, low-key, funny description of your house in North Wales, and why you have to move. You should practice using more prompts of houses and apartments!

      • Jane Thorne

        Marylin you are so kind…you will love hearing about my next adventure. My sister has had the rug pulled out from underneath her and she came down to see me to have a natter. She has chosen to leave her partner and it did not take us girls long to decide to get a home together. We’ve found one and we are helping each other to move on Saturday. Not far from Mum and Dad, who are delighted to have been invited to lunch to christen our new place on Sunday…many blessings. And many more stories to come… ❤ to you all and Happy Thanksgiving for you and all your lovely family. ❤ xXx

      • Having a good “natter”–oh, I love your expressions, Jane!–so much more interesting that having a good talk.
        Your parents must be thrilled to have you and your sister closer by now, and I can’t wait for the blog describing this home you’ve found, and all the little quirks.

  23. Marylin, I was a fan of Jabberwocky when I was in college. One of the young men I dated briefly could recite it by heart. I didn’t marry him but I did marry my husband Jim, who often quoted to me “She was a Phantom of delight
    When first she gleamed upon my sight; A lovely Apparition, sent
    To be a moment’s ornament”.
    Surely I was dazzled by this and now 33 years later, my husband can still say the right “words” to me.
    I love how you used Mr. Wonderful at your writing classes. That is a creative way to teach!
    Happy Thanksgiving!
    xo Joanne

    • Based on the two things the men in your life memorized, Joanne, I’d say your husband Jim was the right man to choose. I’d much rather hear his lovely recitation than Jabberwocky!
      Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

  24. You got me thinking about the one-sided conversations we hear from people on cell phones. It would be fun to imagine the other side of the conversation. It would turn an annoyance into a fun challenge.
    I’m going to start listening rather than attempting to block out the intrusion
    Another great post.

    • What a great idea, Rod! Create one side of the conversation as the prompt for writers to create the other side!
      When I read this, I remembered Molly as a three-year-old when she dialed random numbers on our push-button phone. Her side of the conversation with a lady four states away had me guessing for a long time what the woman was saying!

  25. I am loving all those crazy words, Marylin – with each one I immediately thought “I wish I had thought of that first!” I am actually working on a crazy-word project – trying to come up with more Quinbloits (words for the over-50s that should exist, but don’t) for the Fat-Bottom-Fifties blog.

    My guess is you are one of those teachers that students remember for years after – along with the lessons learned in an enjoyable way. Hope you have a blessed Thanksgiving!

  26. I love your Quinbloits, Shel, and I look forward to more of them.
    Thank you for the sweet compliment. Even after all these years, when I receive a card or note from a former student thanking me for something we did in the classroom, it means so much to me.

  27. Jim

    Love this blog. I love words and word-play. I learned at a very young age how much fun language can be. My sister and two girl-cousins were older than I. They enjoyed teasing me during family gatherings, never in a mean way. One Thanksgiving they had discovered Pig-Latin. They told ‘secrets’ right in front of my face while I anguished over their newly acquired second language. Then suddenly it hit me! I got it. And I talked Pig-Latin right back at them. I still relish the startled look of disappointment on their faces. 🙂

  28. im-jay, i-yay ove-lay ou-yay o-say uch-may!

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