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the dictionary project author interview: thomas page mcbee

Today, we feature an author interview with Thomas Page McBee. I first became familiar with Thomas’s work through this piece on Salon.com and his ongoing column on The Rumpus, and I was struck by the smartness and poignancy of his writing. I appreciate the way he observes people and incidents, keenly and from all angles, like turning a glass object around in your hand. Enjoy his words.




1. Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:

I do a lot of fact checking for my day job, which sounds dry but is actually a beautiful thing. I find I don’t know what I think I know (how to spell “Robert De Niro,” for instance). I have to adopt a position of healthy skepticism, which is different than doubt. It’s a curiosity. So, that’s a metaphor. Though I no longer work with a paper dictionary, my life is rich with reference material: online dictionaries that contradict my spell-check chief among them. I’m always reading definitions, figuring out how words work. I love the logic behind AP Style, grammar as architecture, the construction of language. Metaphors everywhere! I traffic in them.


2. What is your current favorite word?

I’ve been drawn to muscular words like hamstrung lately. I like the combination of jargon, a powerful image, and the right kind of sound in the mouth.


3. What is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?

Ugh. Moist. It’s effective; just too effective.


4. What word has been your (recent or past) muse?

Vulnerability. Though now I think I’m moving into a different space. Instead of looking at the phrase “Be Vulnerable” before I write, I’m visualizing “Have heart.” For me, there are a lot more dimensions in the latter, and it’s a key shift. With vulnerability, courage can be a byproduct, but with heart, courage — in all of its forms — is the actual engine. I see my relationship to this imaginary reader like I would anyone: sometimes there’s room for all of me, but usually you’re getting a slice. And that’s connection, that offering. It feels more real to me than just full-blown exposure, then asking to be understood. I’m not asking any more, I’m making a dynamic and welcoming you in.


5. For The Rumpus, you write a column—or essays in installments—entitled Self-Made Man? If you were to write a dictionary entry for “self-made,” what would it say?

To construct, with awareness and authenticity, a meaningful sense of self; an imprecise, endless fashioning.


6. In a recent essay of yours: “Self-Made Man: In Real Life,” you talk about the intersection of public vs. private and visibility vs. invisibility, particularly having to do with other people’s expectations and perceptions of you. I particularly loved this: “I think that we need to quit feeling obligated to trumpet our multitudes at the start of every interaction.” I’m wondering if you could speak a little to these concepts of (in)visibility and public/private life in terms of language and particular words. How can language serve to make us visible or invisible? Or, when does language fail us in our interactions with one another?

I think a lot about public and private space; what we reveal and what we hide and why. I think about it more now that I’ve experienced a gender transition, which just highlights for me all the ways I pass. It makes me question what passing even means; the negative implication is around being something we’re not, but I think it’s about being interpreted through one lens. I used to want to eliminate reductionism of that sort, but now I’m moved into a sense of it as not only a necessary way to maintain privacy and boundaries, but an opportunity to learn more about who I am through the ways I’m visible and invisible, the echolocation of what I put out there in all my shifting.

I think a lot about invisibility, about accepting what it has to offer. I think about the way identity is created and curated on the Internet in fragments; how self-conscious it is. And I think that’s a neutral quality, self-consciousness, where I used to feel otherwise. I’m just interested in what it is to be human, and I think narrative is a way to create a visibility that holds even in moments of invisibility: by which I mean, I think understanding oneself is to understand others, and that’s what allows us to not fail each other — in language or otherwise.

Also, it’s okay that we fail each other.


7. Please respond to the following words and definitions*, picked exclusively at random for you:


bar·rel  (ˈbarəl),  n.  [ME. barel; OFr. baril; ?  <  LL. barra, a stave, bar; see BAR, n.],  1.  a large, wooden, cylindrical container with sides that bulge outweard and flat ends, made usually of staves bound together with hoops.  2.  the capacity or contents of a standard barrel (in the United States, usually 31 1/2 gallons; in Great Britain, 36 imperial gallons; in dry measure, various amounts, as 196 pounds of flour, 200 pounds of pork or fish, etc.): abbreviated bbl., bl., bar.  3.  a revolving cylinder, wound with a  chain or rope: as, the barrel of a windlass.  4.  any hollow or solid cylinder: as, the barrel of a fountain pen.  5.  the straight tube of a gun, which directs the projectile.  6.  the quill of a father.  7.  the body of a horse, cow, etc.  8.  [Colloq.], a great amount: as, a barrel of fun


It’s interesting to think that that which contains is also a system of measure. And, of course, how we have pushed that measurement into the soft space of the immeasurable: a barrel of laughs, for instance. I’m interested in measurement, in containment. I guess I haven’t been thinking enough about barrels.



gang·li  (gang’gli), ganglio—

[gang·li-o— (gang’gliə),  a combining verb meaning ganglion, as in ganglioplexus

gang·li-on (gaNGglēən), n.  [pl. GANGLIA (ə), GANGLIONS (-ənz)], [LL.  <  Gr. ganglion, tumor],  1.  a mass of nerve cells serving as a center from which nerve impulses are transmitted.  2.  a center of force, energy, activity, etc. 3.  a small tumor growing on a tendon.]


I have thought a lot about neurobiology, especially mirror neurons. I’m not sure how connected this concept is to ganglions but since I’m not a scientist, I choose to not worry about that. Mirror neurons seem to me a biological imperative for empathy. They act when seeing another animal performing a similar action: you flinch when someone else gets hit by a ball. We all learn so much through reaction. There’s a baby that lives upstairs, a toddler now, and she went through a whole period where she behaved exactly like her dog: barking at strangers in a soft woof. We are each other more than we know.




tab (tab)  n.  [earlier also tabb  <  Eng. Dial.; in some senses contr. Of tablet; in others, associated or merged with tag],  1.  a small, flat loop or strap fastened to something for pulling it, hanging it up, etc.  2.  a small, usually ornamental, flap or piece fastened to the edge or surface of something, as a dress, coat, etc.  3.  an attached or projecting piece of a card or paper, useful in filing.  4.  [Colloq.] a record; reckoning.  5.  in aeronautics, a small auxiliary airfoil set into the trailing edge of an aileron, etc.


It’s interesting that human technology goes so far beyond our modern digital definitions. To think, the person who first created a tab. I always imagine buttonholes: what it would feel like to put your coat on for the first time with such ease. Revolutionary actions need not be large, just profound. I try to remember that.



fa·çade  (/fəˈsäd),  n.  [Fr.; It. facciata  faccia; LL. facia; see FACE]  1.  the front of a building; part of a building facing a courtyard, etc; hence, 2.  the front part of anything: often used figuratively, with implications of an imposing appearance concealing something inferior.


Thinking about if it’s possible to have a façade that doesn’t “conceal something inferior.” Inferior! I mean a façade of calm, of strength, of ease doesn’t necessarily conceal an inferiority, just a complexity that isn’t public. It’s interesting to think of all the ways we attach value, even in areas of supposed neutrality (the dictionary, straight journalism, you know, language). To think that there’s an authoritative source for anything feels very dangerous to me. My own narrative is multiple, how can I ever believe that the world is anything but a prism of perspective, blended?



hy·pog·na·thous  (ˈhī¦pägnəthəs),  adj.  [hypo  gnathous], having a protruding lower jaw.


I’m not sure I understand if this word applies to humans or only insects, but I do know that having a pronounced jaw was my dream for a long time, and now it’s a reality. Like I said, I believe in the profound, however small the container.



*Definitions taken from Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, copyright 1955.



Thomas Page McBee pens a column about masculinity, “Self-Made Man,” for The Rumpus. Find his work in the New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, Salon, the San Francisco Weekly, and the Boston Phoenix, where he is an editor. His manuscript, THIS FRAGILE FORTRESS, about crime, forgiveness, and what makes a man, won the Mary Tanenbaum Nonfiction award from the San Francisco Foundation and was a finalist for the Bakeless Literary prize. He’s spoken about his work at colleges across the country. To learn more, visit thomaspagemcbee.com or follow him on Twitter, @thomaspagemcbee.


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the dictionary project author interview: cheryl strayed

Today is the second Wednesday of July and time for an author interview at the dictionary project. I’m thrilled to share that today we have an interview with Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir WILD and the voice of “Dear Sugar” at The Rumpus. Her newest book Tiny Beautiful Things, released yesterday, culls together many of her “Dear Sugar” columns along with some new additions. I first became familiar with Cheryl’s writing when she was writing anonymously as the voice of Sugar. I was immediately captivated not only by her beautiful writing but by the compassion, sincerity, and strength of her voice. Cheryl’s voice is so needed in our world. Her writing wrestles the with big questions and does so with insightful, smart, beautifully-crafted language.  Please enjoy this sampling.


Photo Credit: Brian Lindstrom


1.   Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:

“Look it up in the dictionary” was a common refrain in my childhood. It was what my mother said to me whenever I asked her what a particular word meant. I would sigh and pretend to be put out, but really I loved looking up words in the dictionary. I still do. When I was 12 or so I spent several weeks reading my family’s dictionary in search of antiquated words. When I found one I liked, I’d add it to a list I kept, along with its definition. This is how I learned words like prick-me-dainty, flibbertigibbet, and honeyfuggle. I’ve spent the subsequent years using them in conversation whenever I can.

2.   What is your current favorite word?

I think supercalifragilisticexpialidocious will always be my favorite word. There’s just so much joy in it. Favorite words have been on my mind a lot over this past year, during which I did the final edits of my two most recent books—WILD and TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS. In that process I got to see what my favorite words were because my editor, Robin Desser, pointed them out to me with her all-seeing editor’s pencil. In the first draft of WILD I used the word ache an awful lot. In TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS my overused word was heal. Funny how those two words are opposites in many ways and there they were in my two back-to-back books. We heal our aches. We ache to heal


3.  What, in your opinion, is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?

Maiden. As in one’s “maiden name.” Whenever anyone asks me what my maiden name is I have an internal hissy fit. The string of assumptions that go along with the notion that women have “maiden” names makes me crazy—the primary one being that a woman married a man and took his name. I do not have a maiden name, but I do have a different name than the one I had when I was younger and that name change has nothing to do with my status as a so-called “maiden,” nor does it have to do with my husband. When I explain this to the various customer service people who dare to inquire about my maiden name they generally act as if I’m speaking Latin, but I persist anyway. It’s my small part for the advancement of humankind.


4.  Please respond to the following words and definitions, picked exclusively and randomly for you:



pho·to·graph·ic  (fō-tə-ˈgra-fik),  adj.  1.  of or like a photograph or photography: as, his photographic writing.  2.  used in or made by photography, as equipment, records, etc. Abbreviated phot. photog. 

There has been too much photography in my life lately. Too many times when I’m standing there in front of the camera trying to figure out what the hell to do with my mouth. In my experience it’s the mouth that’s hardest to get right. One must hold it in a position that conveys intelligence and attractiveness, calm approachability as well as serious intensity. Usually I just give up and smile.


bar·ris·ter  (ˈber-ə-stər),  n.  [< bar  (court of justice)],  in England, a qualified member of the legal profession who presents and pleads cases in court; counselor-at-law: distinguished from solicitor: abbreviated barr., bar.—SYN. see lawyer.


I’ve never understood this word, so I tend to avoid it. Even reading this definition, I still feel unsure. Is a barrister an attorney? What’s a solicitor? When I hear the word barrister I picture a man in a white shirt with lots of ruffles at the front. It isn’t a good thing.



roup  (rüp),  n.  [prob.  < ME. roupen, to cry, shout  < ON., but akin to AS. hropan, G. rufen, to call],  1.  a poultry disease characterized by hoarseness and a catarrhal discharge from the eyes and nasal passages.  2.  hoarseness; huskiness.


Interesting that the roup is so close to the word croup—one is a respiratory disease in birds, the other in humans. My kids never had croup, I’m glad to say, but I always liked the sound of it. It’s a word I’m attracted to, you could say. It reminds me of the American pioneers. Did Laura Ingalls Wilder have croup? Did her family’s flock of chickens have roup? I had chickens as a teenager, mostly hens whom we called The Girls. They never got roup to my knowledge, but one of them nearly died after she got an egg stuck inside of her. My mother devised a homemade hen douche and douched her, thereby saving her life. True story.



stay  (stā),  v.i.  [STAYED (stād) or archaic STAID (stād), STAYING], [ME. staien; Anglo-Fr. estaier; OFr. ester; L. stare, to stand] 1.  to continue in the place or condition specified; remain; keep: as, stay at home, the weather stayed bad for three days, these clothes won’t stay white.  2.  to be located for a while, especially as a guest or resident; live, dwell, or reside (for the time specified).  3.  to stand still; stop; halt.  4.  to pause; tarry; wait; delay: as, stay a little before going on with your labors.  5.  [Colloq.], to keep up, as with another contestant in a race.  7.  [Archaic], to cease.  8. [Archaic], to make a stand, stand one’s ground.  9.  in poker, to remain in a hand by seeing, or meeting, a bet, ante, or raise.  v.t.  1.  to stop, halt, or check.  2.  to hinder, impede, restrain, or detain.  3.  to postpone or delay (legal action or proceedings).  4.  [Rare], to quell or allay (strike, etc.).  5.  to satisfy or appease for a time the pangs or cravings of (thirst, appetite, etc.).  6.  to remain through, during, for, or (with out)to the end of: as, stay the week (out).  7.  [Archaic], to await; wait for.  n.  1.  a)  a stopping or being stopped.  b) a stop, halt, check, or pause.  2.  a postponement or delay in legal action or proceedings: as, the main was given a stay of execution.  3.  a)  the action of remaining or continuing in a place for a time.  b)  time spent in a place: as, she had a long stay in the hospital.  4.  [Colloq.], staying power.  5.  [Archaic], a standstill.  6.  [Obs.], a)  a hindrance. b)  restraint or control.  c)  delay.


My favorite use of this word is the fifth definition: “to satisfy or appease for a time the pangs or cravings of….” I don’t use it nearly enough.



sift  (sift),  v.t.  [ME. siften; AS. siftan  <  sife, a sieve; askin to G. sichten; cf. SIEVE],  1.  to pass through a sieve so as to separate the course from the fine particles.  2.  to scatter (a pulverized substance) by or as by the use of a sieve.  3.  to inspect or examine with care, as by teasing or questioning; weigh (evidence, etc.).  4.  to separate; screen; distinguish: as, he sifted fact from fable.  v.i.  1.  to sift something.  2.  to pass through or as through a sieve.


The question I have is who sifts flour? Is it necessary or is it just another way of convincing ourselves we have more control than we do? I have wondered this often. The only time I’ve ever sifted flour is in the home economics classes I took in school, when I was required to follow specific steps and the tools were all laid out before me. Nothing bad has happened to me for not sifting my flour so far. No cakes have fallen. No bread ruined. I’ve taken my chances and it’s turned out okay. I’m lucky that way.



Cheryl Strayed is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the memoir WILD (Alfred A. Knopf), and the critically acclaimed novel, Torch (Houghton Mifflin). She has been writing the “Dear Sugar” advice column for The Rumpus since March 11, 2010 and her latest book, Tiny Beautiful Things (Vintage Books), is a collection of those columns.Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Allure, Self, The Missouri Review, Brain, Child, Creative Nonfiction, The Sun and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.



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1sug·ar     noun     \ˈSHo͝ogər\

1: a : a sweet crystallizable material that consists wholly or essentially of sucrose, is colorless or white when pure tending to brown when less refined, is obtained commercially from sugarcane or sugar beet and less extensively from sorghum, maples, and palms, and is important as a source of dietary carbohydrate and as a sweetener and preservative of other foods b : any of various water-soluble compounds that vary widely in sweetness, include the monosaccharides and oligosaccharides, and typically are optically active

2 : a unit (as a spoonful, cube, or lump) of sugar

3: a sugar bowl


2sugar     verb     sug·ared     sug·ar·ing

transitive verb

1: to make palatable or attractive : sweeten <a story sugared with romance>

2: to sprinkle or mix with sugar

intransitive verb

1: to form or be converted into sugar

2: to become granular

3: to make maple syrup or maple sugar



I found Sugar at a time in my life when I was mourning severed connections, reflecting deeply on myself and my life and my choices and experiencing raw loneliness. My life was by no means in shambles, but I still was struggling with boundless uncertainties and deep self-doubt.

An advice columnist for The Rumpus, Sugar’s columns are exactly the opposite of what repels me from other columns. They are not didactic. They do not pretend to solve someone’s complicated problem or deep question in one neatly wrapped up answer. They are not formal or impersonal. They do not have an imbalanced or hierarchical relationship between advice seeker and advice giver. There is no air of superiority.

Instead, Sugar is a cartographer of the heart; she reaches into the map of her personal history, pulling out threads of her journeys and struggles and celebrations and weaving them through readers’ questions. Here, she says, look at this. And this. And this. In authentically crafting stories that navigate their way to an answer of sorts, she offers words that resonate with all readers, no matter whether they have been in the same situation as the advice seeker or not.

It isn’t that Sugar is telling us things that we don’t already know. Sugar taps into the deep register, the inaudible murmur resting below the words being said and she echoes back this thrumming in the truths she tells and the way she tells them: with honesty, with compassion, with love. Often those writing in don’t only need to address the current situation in need of attention and healing but the deep wounds that lie beneath it. And these wounds—of not feeling worthy or of being ashamed or of being scared to love or to be vulnerable or take risks because of our past hurts—these are ones we can all relate to.

Tonight, Sugar is having a coming out party in San Francisco, to tell the world who she really is. But as she said in one of her columns, we already know who she is: “…I quickly realized that telling stories about my life was often the only way I knew how to communicate the complexity of my advice. Your story spilled into mine and then I spilled it back into you, with hopes that we’d all find ourselves somewhere in the big story that belongs to all of us in a place we made up called Sugarland, where you know me already, even though you don’t know me at all.”



Researcher and storyteller Brene Brown has a brilliant TED talk about vulnerability. One of the things she discusses is that there is only one major difference between whole-hearted people, those who live with their whole heart, and those who don’t, and that is that whole-hearted people view vulnerability as a necessary part of life. And they see that vulnerability involves risk (to say “I love you” first, to do something they’ve never done before, to ask for help) and they choose to be vulnerable anyway. Sugar’s columns are built with vulnerability and they encourage this sort of way of being and living in her readers.

I brought Sugar’s columns into my freshman composition classroom this past fall to show them examples of how to use personal narrative to make a strong and clear point. We read one of her columns aloud and discussed how she went about telling her story and for what effect. Then, students had to answer one of her letter writers using their own personal experience. They talked about loss and grief and insecurities. Their words spilled over with hope and fear and love and disappointment. And when they were finished writing, one of my students asked: Can we see her answer? What did Sugar say?

I never know how students will respond to lesson plans and had hopes for this one. But it was about something more than craft or pedagogical goals: I wanted to expose them to the rhetoric of love. One of the things I love most about Sugar is that she writes her column because the letters she receives need to be read and these stories need to be told. We all need tending to. And in reading and in responding, she has created and held a space for us, where we all can feel less alone, where we all belong, where we have the opportunity to be whole-hearted people, together.


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rhyth·mist  (ˈrith-mist)  n. A master of rhythmical composition; also, one versed in rhythmics.

(from Webster Comprehensive Dictionary: International Edition, Lobate through Z)

“Get rhythm when you get the blues/ Get rhythm when you get the blues/ Yes a jumpy rhythm makes you feel so fine/It’ll shake all the trouble from your mind/Get rhythm when you get the blues.” –Johnny Cash


Lately, I’ve had a case of the doldrums. This usually happens to me in summer. I think that we make summer the time of happiness. Get a tan. Go on vacation. Read mindless books. Enjoy yourself. So if you aren’t feeling happy all the time, there is something wrong with you because, come on, it’s summer.

Especially in the past four years while I have been studying and working on the academic calendar, summer is a sort of pause in the rhythm of my life. It is a time for reflection and detoxification and detoxifying requires bringing all the toxins to the surface, where they are visible. This can be a difficult process.

I’ve been thinking lately about what I am in this life and what I am meant to be. I know, easy questions. And I’ve also been thinking about Lucinda Williams’ song “Born to be loved.” In it, she cites all the things you are not born to be: “to be abused,” “to lose,” “to be abandoned,” “to be forsaken,” “to be mistreated,” “to be misguided.” What you are born to be at the end of each refrain is loved. You were born to be loved.

Lately, in my mindfulness meditation, I’ve been practicing metta, or loving-kindness, for myself and one of the things I’ve been saying to myself is “May I be love. May I be loved.” Isn’t it amazing that only one letter is different in these two intentions? When I say them aloud, if I do so quickly, you may not even hear the difference. Perhaps it is because they are so closely intertwined, the ability to love others and one’s receptivity to love. Recently, Stephen Elliot in his daily email piece for The Rumpus quoted someone’s interpretation of the human question as being not: “Am I loveable?” but “Am I capable of love?” For it is in our capacity to offer love, which we are all born with even if we have to work at it in our lives, that we are able to be loved. My mindfulness teacher has me offering metta to myself because he knows that only in offering acceptance and love to myself am I really able to offer these to others.

So, a few pulses I have been considering, a few rhythms repeating in my mind these days. Hope yours are steady and continuous and raw and new.

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