Confession: I Can’t Spell

24Nov09

By the artist Janie Geiser, given to Mark and me as a wedding present

I have never been able to spell.  This is a humiliating fact for me.  I write fast and with a studied sloppiness so that the reader will think I have bad penmanship rather than bad spelling.  I can remember wincing many times, a burning humiliation.  Once even on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii at the observatory with twelve members of my family, including my father, an impeccable speller.  Up there, on top of the world, I left behind an incorrectly spelled word.  In the guest book we all noticed that a few days before us the news anchor, Tom Brokaw, had been to the observatory with his family.  Elegantly, they’d signed in and saluted fellow visitors.  Trying to be funny, I wrote something about us being up there too, but we, in our caravan, many children, one in diapers, were like the Joads.  I spelled it Jodes.  It’s up there with my signature, on top of one of the tallest mountains in the world,  if you measure the height from its base on the ocean floor to its summit.  It’s there in the guest book for everyone to see.  When I gave my father the manuscript of my first novel, Bright Angel Time, this was long before spell check, he said to me, “There are so many egregious spelling errors in here I don’t know where to begin.”  (He did enjoy the book.)  Meanwhile the manuscript was being shopped around to publishers, filled with pimples and blemishes and scars.  I can’t spell.  When I became upset in front of my father, frustrated with my spelling incompetence he comforted me, “Many writers can’t spell.  You don’t need to be able to spell to write.  Flannery O’Connor famously couldn’t spell.  Read her letters.  In fact, so many fine writers can’t spell. I always wondered if something were wrong with me since I can spell.”    It made me feel better for a bit, and I try to recall it when suffering a bout of spelling inadequacy.

The other day in one such bout, my father’s insight from years before not helping me out of it, I googled I CAN’T SPELL and found an article by Steve Hendrix, “Why Stevie Can’t Spell,”  from 2005 in the Washington Post. It was wonderful and funny and insightful and above all I am not nearly as bad a speller as he is!

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