Tonight Patrick and I were sitting on the couch avoiding homework and housework, petting the cats, and letting our minds wander, as is our custom at times like this.
“I think it would be funny to write a story where you purposely included typos,” said Patrick. “It could be a murder mystery, and at the end of the story there could be three people who could have done it, and the only way to find out would be by figuring out which words have typos and taking the first letter of each. Together, they would spell out the name of the person who did it.”
“Whoa,” I said. “That’s a great idea.”
And that’s as far as it went at that time, because our minds wandered off somewhere else. We often sound semi-wasted around here.
But now that I’ve had time to think about it, I realize that a) this really is a killer plot device, and I may well integrate it into a story somewhere; and b) Patrick truly is my son.
See, my very first novel, Redeeming Stanley, turns on a typo. Here’s what happens:
“I’ve always just adored the name ‘Stanley,’” Angela said breathlessly, resting a slender hand on her neighbor’s gnarled, tattooed forearm. Her clear-polished nails lay over the tattoo—a hooker with high hard boobs and sleek hips. Muscles flexed under Angela’s slender fingers. The hooker shimmied. Angela snatched back her hand.
“Name’s not ‘Stanley,’ lady,” Angela’s neighbor grunted. “You got the wrong house.”
“Stanley Prinz? Isn’t that your name?” Angela knew it was; his Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes envelope said so. The neighbor lady, a scrawny old hen tarted up like a three-dollar whore, had forced Angela into robbing Stanley’s mailbox by the simple expedient of keeping her mouth shut.
There’s a story behind this. Way back when I was in college I had a professor who walked into the classroom lecturing, lectured at warp speed throughout the period, and walked out the door, still lecturing. And then he tested us on every. Frigging. Word. He. Said.
It took me exactly two weeks to develop a personal shorthand that was largely incomprehensible to anyone else. It was composed of symbols, abbreviations, and the sort of letter formation that led my father, himself no master penman, to say, “Bodie, your handwriting’s really gotten terrible.” He was right; it had. But I could read it, and I was passing History of England, which is all that mattered to me then.
Though I was delighted to be passing my class, I was somewhat troubled by the fact that I found it much faster and easier to write “Stan,” rather than “Satan.” It seemed disrespectful to be referring to the Prince of Darkness by a name that sounded like a short, fat guy in a wife-beater t-shirt. The guy might think I wanted to pal around or something. So I tried. I really did. But by the time I had passed my class Satan had largely been replaced by Stan, and Stan just wasn’t as scary, or as evil.
Maybe it was that transition that made it possible for me to later accept that our Devil is the direct descendant of Gods who weren’t evil at all; they were just unfortunate enough to be on the losing side of a power struggle that turned into a holy war. When a people is vanquished, so are their gods. Often they are turned into demons. Or jokes. Or Satan. Or Stan.
A misspelled word–a typo–laid the groundwork for a larger understanding, in my case–and eventually, for a character in my first novel.
Typos aren’t just written; they can be “aural malapropisms,” to quote the smart folks, or “mondegreens,” to quote the funny ones, like Sylvia Wright. Her essay, “The Death of Lady Mondegreen,” is a paean to the misheard word, and the creativity it can inspire.
Lady Mondegreen first appeared in Harper’s Magazine in November, 1954, accompanied by her friends Good Mrs. Murphy, the Earl A’Moray, and Round John Virgin, all of whom have largely faded into obscurity, though Round John Virgin enjoyed a brief renaissance a few years ago in the company of Olive, the Other Reindeer, yet another mondegreen.
Yesterday’s post was all about the Need for Editing, and the Shame of Typos, and I was right there, congratulating myself for my wisdom in hiring an editor, who will rid me of my verbal idiocies. And as a writer, I stand by every word I wrote.
But I’m not just a writer. I’m an artist, too, and the artist in me delights in what my very first painting teacher called “happy accidents.” She was painting an extremely structured piece that owed much of its inspiration to Mondrian. And as she was painting one of her perfectly straight horizontal lines she got A Run. A droplet of deep mauve made its way down her canvas.
First she cursed. Then she said, “I don’t know how I’m going to fix it.” Then she came around and critiqued all of our student pictures. Then she cursed some more. The next day she stood back from her canvas, tapped her teeth with the handle of her paintbrush, and said, “You know, I think I like this. It does something for the painting. I’m going to do it some more.”
And she took her brush and loaded it with paint and ran it over her nice straight horizontal lines. Then she stood back and watched it dribble down her canvas. When the paint set she went back in and added depth and dimension and contours to the dribbles. They acquired a life of their own. Those paintings became a hymn to happy accidents.
My professor’s celebration of happy accidents meant something to me that I never really understood until I read about Lady Mondegreen–and that I understood even better when I took an accidental abbreviation from my college notes and turned it into Stan, an old god who hates having to play the role of Satan–and who ultimately escapes in large part aided by Lady Mondegreen.
The thing about happy accidents is that they surprise us, and because they catch us unaware they have the power to slip inside our guard, and change our perceptions.But not always. In Redeeming Stanley, Angela is so convinced that she knows all there is to know about her neighbor that it takes something pretty dramatic to convince her that she really needs to go back and check her spelling:
He turned on her. “Lady, you don’t even know me.”
“Look, you got no idea. Just … just go home.”
Her chin lifted. “I don’t have to know you to know that Jesus died on the cross for you, and that I love you.”
Stan stared. “You don’t love me,” he said. “You don’t know me.”
“Yes I do. You’re a child of God.”
“I am a god.” Stan closed his mouth. It was too late.
She stared at him. “That’s blasphemy,” she whispered.
“Just get away from me.” Now he was snarling.
“You’re not God,” Angela said mulishly. “You’re Stanley Prince.”
In a place where neither of them could hear it, a scale tipped.
“I—am—not!” roared the man formerly known as Stan.
But she was determined. “Your mail says so.”
“Do the people at Publisher’s Clearinghouse always spell your name right?” Stan turned and stormed toward his house. Angela stormed after him as well as she could, given her high heels and neat, slim line skirt.
He whirled. “Get away from me!”
He sounded a little desperate, but Angela ignored him. She trotted after him down his dusty hallway, past a skeletal philodendron and a dead ivy growing through a crack in the wall, and straight into his kitchen. She stopped short in the doorway when she saw his dog lying under the table. The dog lifted his head, panting.
It’s laughing at me, Angela thought. Then she thought, That’s ridiculous.
Stan yanked open a cupboard door. Contracts—far more than should have fit into a mere kitchen cupboard—cascaded onto the floor. Stan and Angela stood knee-deep in paper, glaring at each other.
“I. Am. Not. Stan,” Stan said through gritted teeth. He grabbed a contract and pushed it under Angela’s pert little nose. A thick, stubby, none-too-clean finger jabbed at a charred, smoky signature. “See? That’s who I am. That’s me.”
Angela laughed a merry, tinkling laugh. She forgot how nervous the laughing dog made her. “No, it’s not,” she trilled.
“Yes, it is. That’s my name on those contracts, and take a look at this…” he extended the stubby finger. A small flame danced on the broken fingernail.
“You are not Satan.” Angela started giggling again.
“Lady, I am.”
“No, you’re not. I couldn’t be in love with Satan. Jesus is in my heart, and he wouldn’t let me love the Devil,” she chirped. “You’re just playing a joke.” She gave him a bright smile. “But that’s okay. This is America. We believe in free speech. You can say whatever you want.”
He blinked. “And the whole Prince of Darkness thing doesn’t bug you?”
“Well, yes … if it were true, but it’s not. I know you, Stan, and that’s just not you. Besides, Satan wouldn’t have a dog.” Angela smiled sweetly.
“What about the Hounds of Hell?”
“Your dog is not a hound of hell, Stan.” Angela said. “Look at it.”
The dog rolled onto his back, wriggled, and farted.
“Not a very good one, anyway,” Stan muttered. Silence fell. Then they spoke at the same time.
“Well….” she began.
“The contracts?” he asked, a lift of hope in his voice.
“It’s your job. I might not like some of your business practices—” she thought of Weldon Frame and the Independent Entity and shuddered “—but that doesn’t mean you’re evil. Not really evil, at any rate.”
“You’re right,” rasped Babe. She was slouching in the doorway, one hip braced against the doorjamb. “His heart was never in it.” She squinted at Stan. “You should go back to your old job.”
“No market for it,” he said sadly.
“Oh, I dunno.”
“Who’d believe in me these days?” He said it like he really wanted an answer.
“Hell, who wouldn’t? The tree huggers? Green Giant?”
“We love you right here,” Angela said desperately, but they had forgotten she was present. Or maybe they had gone somewhere she could not follow.
“Ya think?” asked Stan.
“Hell, yeah. Look, Bub, ya gave it a good shot,” said Babe. She straightened up and dropped her cigarette deliberately into the drift of contracts. “But the girlie’s right. It’s not you any more than this is me. We’re more than this, and I for one, am damned sick of this gig.”
Stan thought of Weldon Frame and his seedy little revenge plot, of having to deal with beings like The Freak, of being at the beck and call of every mortal with his knickers in a twist … and something that had seemed as dead as the ivy growing (or not growing) on his walls put out a tiny new green sprig. The sprig grew, divided, spread, put down roots.
“Yeah. We are,” Stan said at last. Flame flickered on his fingernail. He stooped and held it to a fluttering contract. The paper blackened, curled. Orange flame flowed up its side and jumped to the next paper. Stan nodded, lifted his chin, straightened, and then, to Angela’s dismay, he began to grow, taller, thicker, more muscular.
The contracts blazed up. Angela stumbled back, her hands covering her nose and mouth, her eyes streaming. The little dog yelped and dashed out the back door. Stan wavered and shifted in the heat pulsing from the flames. Babe did, too, but Angela had eyes only for Stan. As she peered through the orange glow of the rising flames, the familiar, beloved face grew harder, chiseled, weathered. His grimy T-shirt and jeans split and fell to the floor. Muscles twisted and flexed like oak roots. The grimy, wrinkled skin tightened as the body swelled within it, then split and fell away, leaving a being whose skin glowed and shimmered with all the greens in the world.
Beside him, Babe grew taller, fuller, firmer, and if she wasn’t young, it no longer mattered. Great beauty transcends mere prettiness, and the power of greening life transcends mere beauty. Angela looked at Babe and Stan. She had no choice; she had to acknowledge the truth: Whoever the vast, green being standing among the blazing contracts was, he wasn’t Stan, and she didn’t love him. He grew larger, darker, greener, shattered into a million pieces that shattered into a million more, and still he stood there, ancient, gnarled, verdant, rampant. And then Babe lifted her arms and with something like a groan the Green Man was upon her, and in her, and she screamed her pleasure. The world rippled and split, and when it crashed back together the pieces had realigned themselves.
Angela’s body responded to the life throbbing around her, through her skin and body, between her legs. Terrified, she turned and ran from the kitchen. A twining mass of ivy had penetrated the wall, splitting it wide open, pulsing and growing even as she watched. Angela fled the house. On the street, where the rusty Mustang used to stand, a great black horse, eyes glowing, mane and tail smoky, reared and stamped. Light flashed off its satiny hide, glowed in its delicate crimson nostrils.
Rioting vines and saplings entangled Angela’s feet as she scuttled for home. The sidewalk and street receded as she raced toward them, stumbling on her high heels, tripping on thrashing greenery, and then, on the buckling sidewalk. Terrified and weeping, she clambered up her steps and plunged into her clean white house.
She slammed the door and shot the dead bolt, then leaned against it, panting. She needed one last look, just to make sure. She twitched her curtain aside with trembling fingers and peeped out at the street. Stan’s house was gone. In its place stood a green and rustling forest, the sort of forest, Angela imagined, in which wolves, wildcats, and witches might live. The infinite wrongness of such a forest in the California desert terrified her.
Typos can be more than just mistakes. They can become opportunities for creativity, for change, for play, for the birth of new ideas. A typo in my college class eventually led to a “Satan” who, because of Angela’s determination that he is not the “Prince of Darkenss” but “Stan,” can become more than just the embodiment of ultimate evil. He can see and understand the smallness of what he has become, and can choose to reclaim his older persona as the consort of the Great Mother, and co-creator of life. Thank all gods for typos. They may be the saving of us all. Here, just for fun, is the rest of the passage from Redeeming Stanley, Angela’s response to having been brought face to face with the reality of Stan and Babe. Enjoy!
And then a hoarse, ancient roar rose from the trees, and her body pulsed madly, awfully, in response, and outside the rain began sheeting down, even though it was the middle of the dry season.
Something blazed up at Angela’s core. It burned like a million suns, shattering through her, at once sublime and horrifying, resolving itself into a knot that exploded wonderfully, formidably, changing her forever. When Angela came to herself, she was a trembling wreck, slick with sweat, curled down against the door, fighting the dimming pulses that still surged through her body, forcing her to remember that Christian or not, she was Woman first, last, and forever. Rain pattered on her roof.
She sought refuge from the terrible knowledge in the same way she had always hidden from things she didn’t want to know. She turned on a lamp, crept to the bathroom, stripped off her sweat-soaked clothes, showered, wrapped herself in her fluffy white robe, came back to her cozy white living room, wedged herself into a corner of her sofa, curled her legs under her, and opened her Bible. Slowly the archaic language worked its familiar magic. Her legs stopped shaking, then her fingers. Her breathing slowed. Her head dropped onto her arm. She slept.
For a few days Angela hid fearfully in her house until the shock had faded and she realized that what she had seen and experienced couldn’t possibly have happened. Normal people, even grungy people like Stan and Babe, didn’t transmogrify into something as awe-inspiring and terrible as gods, and even if they did, gods wouldn’t do that, and especially not right in front of her. Real gods like Jesus didn’t have sex. She taught herself to chuckle when she thought of it. And as for what had happened to her, well, it just couldn’t have.
Good Christian women didn’t behave like that. They didn’t have those kinds of feelings. When they made love, it was only with their wedded husbands, at night, in bed with the light off, neatly, quietly, and politely, not slumped alone against the front door, seeing visions of twining ivy and rampant oak. They didn’t collapse on the floor, screaming, knowing they would die if they didn’t ride the wave to its mysterious, crashing end. She must have dreamed it. It had never happened. But by then what she believed no longer mattered.
She had been the fulcrum upon which Stan and Babe’s true natures had rested, tipped, righted themselves, and wobbled on in a completely new—or very old—direction. What Angela did or did not believe made no difference at all anymore, not even to Angela herself. She had other things to occupy her mind, like how she would explain herself at church. Not about Stan and Babe—for all the rest of her life, she never, ever breathed a word about what happened in Stan’s kitchen to anyone. No, Angela’s worry was much closer to home.
Some things transcend belief, and what Angela had set in motion was one of those things. Believe it or not, the Green Man and the Great Mother had come back and were changing the world. Believe it or not, the world included Angela. And believe it or not, it also included one anemic, knock-kneed, buck-toothed little sperm, a sperm convinced in his heart of hearts that he knew exactly what the pearly, luminescent egg before him wanted, that the egg, in fact, thought he was Hot and was just waiting for his tentative, knock-kneed, buck-toothed penetration—in short, a sperm that Weldon Frame had carelessly left lying around inside Angela’s tidy, hygienic, probably snow-white uterus the one and only time he had been there. The sperm had eluded detection in her subsequent housekeeping frenzies, lurking in out-of-the-way corners, evading eviction, though he had long ago forgotten why. By now he was well over a hundred years old in sperm years. He was suffering from the spermish equivalents of senility, incontinence, and Alzheimer’s.
And then the cataclysm. Just as the egg appeared before him, young, dewy, glowing, and infinitely desirable, a deep pulse shocked him into an epiphany. The little sperm perked up, lifted his hoary head, feebly flicked his tail once, twice, thrice, and hobbled forward. And then, at long last, he was in, and for a split second he felt pure bliss. He had won out over all the young, attractive, athletic sperm, the ones who could still navigate without walkers, the ones who had dashed past him in the Great Race, who had milled around aimlessly until Angela had tidied them away.
He Possessed The Egg. And then, too late, the little sperm realized his mistake. If he had ever thought beyond this moment, he would have imagined himself bathed in post-coital bliss, reclining against the egg’s pearly interior wall, remote in hand, tracking scores for his boys as he drifted off.
But it wasn’t like that at all.
Too late he recognized a central truth—the thing possessed also possesses. The egg seized him, sucked him dry and cast him aside, and then, using his life’s blood, she swelled, grew, divided. With his last flicker of consciousness, the little sperm realized sadly that the egg wasn’t Hot after all. In the end, like all of her kind, she had proven to be a Bitch. She was out for what she could get.
Had Angela known of the pathetic little sperm’s existence, she would have been unsympathetic. In fact, if she hadn’t had the condition of her perfect, almond-shaped nails to consider, she would have happily ripped his tiny tail away from his bulbous, vacuous head. Some things transcend belief, and what the little sperm and the pearly egg had become was one of those things. The egg divided, divided, divided, sprouted a head, arms, legs. She grew a heart, a brain, an umbilical cord. Angela was pregnant, and it was all Stan’s fault for fooling her into thinking he could be Saved.
Want to read more? Stanley’s waiting for you at Amazon.
Available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions,
and in audio at AudioLark Books
Come on…you know you want to…and who would it hurt? Just this once…