I wrote my first, furtive em dash as a freshman in high school. A boy I liked in English class was sneaking them into his paragraphs willy-nilly, despite our teacher’s objections. I was preparing a speech to the assembly, and it sounded stiff and boring — which was crazy, because I’m hilarious, and I knew the speech was, too. The periods made me stop. The commas let me slow down, but didn’t give me the dramatic effect I was after. And using exclamation points drove me crazy!
No, I wanted long, sweeping paragraphs — interrupted by bursts of humor or pique — that packed an emotional punch. I wanted the punctuation to guide my voice as I spoke, to give my words rhythm and power and depth.
The em dash made it happen.
I spent the next several years writing research papers and playing by The Man’s rules, using appropriate quotation marks and properly placed apostrophes. I had to hide my em dash-ism to make it through college.
But when I spoke — when I was on stage — I let my em dash flag fly.
Maybe all that time I spent on the speech team and in community theatre damaged my brain, but the truth is I hear the words before I write them.
That’s the reason I can’t listen to music — or a Seahawks game — while I write.
I don’t mind the low hum of people conversing, or the noise of kids playing, or clocks ticking. That’s just buzz — like a theatre audience. Those sounds help me zone out and concentrate. They’re talking around me, protecting the perimeter of my bubble.
But if John Legend is singing or Russell Wilson just ran in another touchdown — they’re talking to me. And like Eminem, man, I’m just trying to get along with the voices in my head.
Research suggests that some addicts may have a genetic predisposition to em dash-ism. My father is one of those theatrical lawyers who makes his juries weep. My brother pontificates so much that he actually became a TV pundit. My daughter — a speechwriter — talks out loud while she writes.
Em dash-ians, one and all.
You see? I didn’t have a chance at a normally punctuated life.
I’m not the only one either. Writers far greater than I — Proust and Joyce come to mind — clearly endured some kind of childhood trauma involving periods. Bukowski’s punctuation marks — like Chuck himself — seem to stumble blindly through his books as if hungover. A friend in my writers’ group is currently involved in a polyamorous relationship with her brackets and braces. She actually wrote a cafe into her novel which she namedParentheses. (She tells me it’s a very inclusive space.)
I’ll bet you’ve got stories — stories about writers you love who tiptoe through the pages with ellipses … or bark at you with exclamation points. Writers who deploy semi-colons at the first sign of trouble. Writers who spark a million question marks but never give you an answer.
What’s your punctuation kink? Spill it in the comments below. Remember — we are stronger together.