Writing at Its Best

by Anita Kline

This is the latest post in our series of reflections on the nature of “good writing.” Anita Kline, manager of the Center for the Study of Religion, is intrigued by the creative potential of homonyms — words that are pronounced the same way but have different meanings. “Such vulnerable, messy terrain,” she writes, “is where new writing ideas roam, as well as some considerable discomfort, to be sure.”

Thinking about what makes good writing and searching for fruitful writing ideas make me think of my two-year-old granddaughter, Eloise, not only because, well, most things do these days, but also because, amid my joy in her existence, I can tell that living with a fledgling communicator while pursuing rich story prospects leaves me hyper-alert to the potential of homonyms. Three recent examples come to mind:

Eloise: We turn left here?

Grandma: Right, and then a U-Turn.

Eloise, alarmed: A Me-Turn, and will you turn with me?


Grandma, a little terse: We already read that book.

Eloise: Then next we can blue this book.


Grandma: Feel the bark on these trees.

Eloise: I don’t like bark because of the teeth.

Grandma: What do you mean?

Eloise: Yes. Some dogs are mean and bark with their teeth.

I am going to dare to compare these fertile moments with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous view that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Could I interpret his quote as a recommendation to a fellow writer for a potent work-out session with homonyms?

While my granddaughter functions with the native brilliance of most toddlers, unaware of her perch on the edges of at least two meanings at the same time, I find myself stunned by where her language takes me, reeling to recalibrate and recognizing how fragile and complex our ability to understand one another is. And yet I also sense that by intentionally playing with the unregulated boundaries inherent to homonyms, I find a portal to new discernment, new metaphorical landscapes.

The space caused by two opposed ideas/concerns/words offers new and innovative possibilities. Such vulnerable, messy terrain is where new writing ideas roam, as well as some considerable discomfort, to be sure. But if I can stay with the tension, if I can will myself to teeter a little longer on the edges of conflicting perspectives, I may gain access to some really good ideas and really good words. And then I can get back to more homonym play with Eloise.