Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The "one little word" challenge

Shortly after New Year’s, I found my way to this blog, which details the clever creative exercise of choosing one word to characterize the upcoming year. Of course, the choice is aspirational, since the year hasn’t happened yet: ideally, it serves as a guidepost and a benchmark for the year you hope to have as well as perhaps the year you anticipate having.

For me, there’s something so provocative about choosing one word for anything, let alone the character of the upcoming twelve months. Limiting words has always proved to be one of my greatest professional and creative challenges: on the macro scale, I consistently run over the word count prescribed by my editors for various assignments, and on the micro scale, one reason I get so much enjoyment from Twitter is the challenge it poses to frame cogent thoughts in 140 characters. When I was a copywriter, one of my primary responsibilities was writing direct-mail pieces and other short-form advertising pieces, and for me, short headlines and punchy blurbs were the hardest part of the job. I often said I’d rather be assigned one of the company’s 170-page catalogs than a 250-word direct mail pitch.

But I do like the one-word format of these challenges, similar to the one Elizabeth Gilbert describes in Eat, Pray, Love where she tries first to find a single word for the city of Rome and then a single word for herself. So often, the words we come up with in these challenges are both too restrictive – because who wants to winnow themselves down to a one-word label? -- and, paradoxically, too generic, because there are so many words for our lives that no one could possibly dispute. Several years ago, members of my former book group decided that the theme for our reading choices in the upcoming year should be “resilience.” I couldn’t resist a snicker at that: aren’t all works of fiction or narrative nonfiction on some level about resilience, either the presence or the absence thereof? Couldn’t it be argued that without at least a modicum of resilience, there’s no one left to describe a conflict?

But in fact, a lot of the words we might use for the grand themes in our lives have this same wide-focus problem. At a writers’ workshop in which we paused our writing to expand our creativity with a painting exercise, I overheard a participant say to the artist-in-residence, “I chose yellow. Isn’t yellow the color of change?” The artist responded, “Isn’t every color the color of change?"

In the blog entry that I was consulting for guidance on this practice, some of the choices were predictable – serenity, gratitude, hope – but their lack of uniqueness makes them no less valid. These are the themes almost all of us would wish to have touch our lives in an as-yet-unexperienced twelve months. And there were others on the list I hadn’t thought of: clarity, prosperous, wholehearted, gather.

For myself, I’m still thinking it over, but I keep coming back to my first choice being “possible.” At first I thought “possibilities,” but in a way that seems too biased in its positive connotations. “Possibilities” surely sound like all good things, and I want something a little bit grittier, a little bit more willing to acknowledge that good things may or may not happen. Even though it is almost the same word, “possible” sounds more neutral to me, and therefore more honest. It’s possible that I’ll have some degree of literary success this year; it’s possible I’ll get swine flu. It’s possible my family will get to go on a dream vacation this summer; it’s possible we’ll postpone that another year. Terrorist attacks are possible and so are new friends.

So my word, at least for now, is “possible.” Perhaps I too have cheated by choosing one that’s hard to argue with. Of course things are possible; how could they not be, other than in the most hopeless of situations? But maybe that’s the point right now. Good things or bad things might happen to me and around me, but nothing feels hopeless. It all feels, well, possible.

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