Thank You Rio & Susan

By Liz Ness on May 20, 2019

One balmy April day in college, my friend Rio asked Erik and me, "What’s your favorite word?"

Hmm. "Pizza," I offered, not getting the gist of the game and causing Erik to chuckle.

"No. What words sound…well, sound interesting? What are your favorite words?" Rio asked.

I considered his question, wondering where he was headed.

"Gazebo!" He said, not waiting for an answer and added, "With that great z sound, it’s in the collection."

"What else?" he asked.

Hmm. It was an interesting word with a great sound. And, that part about collecting words? It interested me, too. So, gazebo became the first word in my collection.

The rest of the story gets fuzzy, though. I’m not sure what other words were added to the collection that day. Honestly, I’m not sure it all went down quite like that, either. I do remember it was a great day, Rio and Erik were there, and Rio started it all with gazebo. The rest of it may be under the influence of nostalgia.

Because of Rio, my early word collections were off to a great start. But, they suffered because I thought I could keep it all in my head. It wasn’t until 10 years later when I read Poemcrazy by Susan Wooldridge and adopted her recommendation to create a physical wordpool that my collections gained longevity.

Though Mom always encouraged me to write things down (because my brain is always buzzing and my memory isn't great), the idea of keeping words in a journal wasn't obvious to me. Oddly, I did have a recipe box full of character names, conflict ideas, quips, and more that I started just after I left Oregon State in ’89. So, why didn’t I have an index card in that box with words on it? I guess words seemed too basic and small. Certainly, they should be easy to remember! But, they’re not—at least not in bulk.

Now, keeping a word list isn't just an important practice for memory, it's a part of my writing process—especially, for poetry. Strung together, these collected words form poetic truths that compel me to dig deeper into my own feelings and thoughts. The strings pull at my subconscious in a way that standard phrase patterns don’t, inviting new perspectives and understanding. When I’m stuck, I can select a few words from the list and write around them, integrating them into a larger narrative or poem. Erik once told me that George Harrison launched into writing his heartbreaking song, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, in this way. He pulled a few words from a book in his parent's collection and created beauty. Certainly, the wordpool is a great resource when the page is blank.

Susan’s book and advice made me a better collector, reminding me how words are lovely and how they are worth savoring over the long term.  At Artfest 2009, I was lucky to be one of her students and thank her for that in person. Meanwhile, she guided all of us to notice how individual words like wisp, bohemian, and cacophony cause our hearts and brains to dance in different ways.

In the photo (above) I'm giving her a giant thank you squeeze (yep, I'm a hugger). I just loved her kindness, free spirit, and how she reminded me to lean into silence (and discomfort), take pause, and listen. The words—the story—will always come.

Tell me a story...

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