Look it up.

There’s a scene in the film Say Anything where Lloyd (John Cusack) comes over to Diane’s house (Ione Skye) for what will emerge as a fairly high-stakes dinner with her father (John Mahoney) and his very business-like adult friends. (This meal is where Lloyd, asked what he’s going to do with his life, famously declares his personal philosophy: he doesn’t want to buy anything, sell anything, or process anything. The party ends with the IRS showing up to investigate Diane’s dad for tax fraud.)

Diane’s not ready yet when Lloyd arrives just before all that; he awkwardly pokes around her bedroom as she holds out various dresses around the closet door and asks his opinion on what to wear.

He pauses at a thick reference book, stroking its spine. “This is a mother dictionary,” he says, just loudly enough for her to hear.

“I’ve had it forever,” she says. “I used to have this thing with marking the words that I would look up.”

He flips through the pages, slow at first and then faster, running his finger down columns where nearly every word has a ballpoint-pen X beside it in the margin. Sometimes she’s marked whole runs of words with a giant bracket.

Diane was the valedictorian of a class where Lloyd may have been considered, by at least a few, the coolest dude around. He possesses a shy confidence that is painfully, obviously undercut with a heavy streak of slacker self-doubt.

Lloyd slams the dictionary shut. Maybe he’s overwhelmed, maybe impressed, or maybe both. She emerges with yet another dowdy, matronly dress option and he smiles as if it’s the sexiest thing he’s ever seen. They go down to dinner.

Of all the many times in Say Anything that we are shown and told that Diane Court might be the smartest 18-year-old girl in Seattle, and that unbelievably this is why cool guy Lloyd is in love with her, or at least the idea of her, this has always been the one that stuck with me. She’s undeniably a nerd—“trapped in the body of a game-show hostess,” as one of Lloyd’s female friends observes—and he undoubtedly likes her more for it.

I never had a dictionary quite that fancy growing up—I don’t have a strong memory of any given edition—but from early as I can remember, I would ask my mother what a word I’d come across in a book or newspaper article meant and she would answer, “Why don’t you look it up?” In high school, I had an otherwise unbearably old-fashioned English teacher one year whose most common-sense lecture on a similar topic somehow stuck, habit-forming in its simplicity: Don’t ever read past a word you don’t understand. Stop and look it up. I longed for the luxury of having a dictionary so comprehensive and yet so commonplace that I could mark X’s in pen like Diane’s. I wished for some way to document retroactively how many words I had researched, that I knew.

After my father’s parents died, I came home from college to Reno for a long weekend to help him clean out their two-bedroom apartment. I left with two main inheritances: first, my grandmother’s costume jewelry collection, the kind of heavy rhinestones and elaborately set pieces that no one makes any more. (We each wore one of the necklaces for our wedding.) The other was boxes of books and LIFE magazines—nothing particularly rare or valuable, mostly cheap paperback editions of American classics, some annual calendars or notebooks or other printed giveaways that must have come with the membership dues my progressive grandparents paid to left-wing organizations through the years.

And, most greedily claimed though my only real competition, my brother, was not even there—one giant unabridged Webster dictionary from 1941, the year my father was born. It weighs at least 10 pounds and for more than a decade I hauled it, at no small expense, as I moved from apartment to apartment, coast to coast, where generally it sat on the bottom shelf of any bookcase I deemed sturdy enough to hold its bulk.

When I first moved into my current office, in a sleek shiny building in Burbank, I had a very retro-style bar along the glass window. A year later, nixed by HR, I had a mirrored bar cart I couldn’t entirely bear to bring home in defeat, so I hauled the dictionary to work and cracked it open along the top tray.

I am an editor in chief, I thought, and no matter how many types of media, how many platforms that job now encompasses, I am at heart a woman of words. Here are so many words. Let’s not forget how important each and every word we choose still can be.

Last month, for no real reason except a sudden surge of restlessness, I went over to my dictionary and took a slew of close-up photographs of the cover, the spine, a series of pages at not-quite-random inside. I also found a full sheath of newspaper clippings and typed notes and reference materials tucked inside, a haul rich enough for its own post.

Then I looked up the word that many adults I know will say was their first furtive attempt to confirm via a dictionary, particularly one in a library they might leaf through otherwise anonymously, that they might exist in some older, more recognized form: homosexual.

But the 1941 unabridged Webster’s does not include the word homosexual, or any of its variations.

It skips from Homo sapiens (“Man, regarded as an organic species”) to homoseismal (“Coseismal,” which according to m-w.com means “simultaneously affected by the same phase of any particular seismic shock”) to homo signorum (“An image, much used in old almanacs, of a man surrounded by representations of the signs of the zodiac, lines from which point to the parts of the body subject to their influence”).

I have no idea why homosexual is not included in this dictionary. Their website now includes the definition—“1. of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex; 2. of, relating to, or involving sexual activity between persons of the same sex”—and notes the first known use of the word was in 1891. There’s no detail on the site given on when or why it was added to Webster’s lexicon. (Just looked up lexicon to be sure I was using it correctly; according to Google it is “the vocabulary of a person, language, or branch of knowledge; a dictionary.”)

By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. (I can only hope at least some curious male homosexuals who looked up their word found a similar illustration on a nearby page, thus perhaps helping answer some of their questions.)

That’s not to say no one could tell me why it’s not included. Here’s one lengthy and fascinating longread about the history of Merriam, Webster and all their editions and additions, which leads me to believe that I could likely get a human on the phone who is perhaps willing to take me down that particular queer rabbit hole.

A quick google (the verb, using the proper noun site, and also the clear antagonist in this dictionary ecology) reveals that in fact earlier Webster’s did include the H-word, perhaps before my edition: In 1909, according to OutHistory.org, homosexuality made its debut in Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary “as a ‘Med.’ (medical) term meaning ‘morbid sexual passion for one of the same sex.’ Homosexuality was considered a ‘morbid’ (diseased) passion because it was not a passion for procreating, but for sexual pleasure.”

The site also says heterosexuality didn’t make the page until 14 years later, in 1923, when it was similarly defined as a “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.”

Here I believe this site may be quoting verbatim from historian Jonathan Ned Katz’s The Invention of Heterosexuality:

In 1934 “heterosexuality” appears in Webster’s hefty Second Edition Unabridged, defined in what in 2015 is still the dominant modern mode. In 1934 “heterosexuality” is a “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.” Heterosexuality has finally attained the status of norm.

In the same 1934 Webster’s, “homosexuality” has changed as well. It’s simply “eroticism for one of the same sex.” Both terms medical origins are no longer cited. Heterosexuality and homosexuality have settled into standard English.

If I could find my copy of Katz’s book, which I know at one point I definitely owned, or had ready access to his archives in the New York Public Library, I might find what appear to be further detailed footnotes about Katz’s own correspondence with a M-W rep named Brett P. Palmer on the subject:

Mr. Palmer assures Katz that “homosexuality” and “homosexual” appears on page 1030 of the 1909 edition of Websters’s International Dictionary. He also says that “heterosexuality” first appears on page xcii of the 1923 supplement of Webster’s New International Dictionary, and that the contemporary definition of “heterosexual” first appears in the 1934 Second Edition of Webster’s. Katz is grateful to Palmer for this information and for photocopies of these pages, now in the Katz Collection, NYPL.

But what of my 1941 copy?

The answer may partially be that it’s technically a Webster’s second edition, which according to the Slate longread is mostly now remembered for being something of a layover between the early origin myth-type tomes and the modernized, more curated Third:

The Second was what one Merriam editor calls the Internet of its time: 3,350 pages long, with more than 600,000 main entries, including proper nouns, and hundreds of pages of biographical, geographical, and literary appendices and other encyclopedic matter. The Second was designed to be a single-source reference for the educated classes and an aspirational text for the masses. It contained long lists of popes and dukes, and hundreds of illustrative quotations from the Bible, Shakespeare, and Dickens. But there was no mention of Mae West, Eugene O’Neill, or Babe Ruth. Popular culture, a term dating to the 19th century, was considered too unrefined for such a serious work. The Second was also priggishly didactic, prescribing what its ivory tower editors and consultants considered “proper” language, and brusquely dismissing usage that was, as its labels declared, incorrect, improper, or illiterate.

I am not sure if I should take the homosexual’s exclusion from such an encyclopedic volume as priggish (self-righteous) or perhaps prudish or simply proscriptive: if you don’t define someone, they can’t disrupt your world order, or so you might hope.

Really it was already too late for that. In 1941, homosexuals were fairly well-defined, medically speaking (if not well-described or well cared for as humans in those medical worlds). We were living in varying degrees of secrecy or boldness, particularly as the second edition of a U.S.-involved World War provided ever more freedom for independent women or sea-faring men to find each other in circumstances where perhaps many people cared more about simple survival than who kept each other warm.

I like looking this sort of thing up. It’s how I almost ended up going to graduate school to study queer history, though instead I just jumped feet-first into what they call the first draft of history, aka journalism. (My baby brother went full historian, which is almost as satisfying.)

I particularly like that we live in a world now where in order to learn a word you don’t have to skulk into the corner of a library, under a bank lamp or the watchful nosy eye of a small-minded, small-town busybody. (I never knew a librarian who wanted anything but to encourage reading more, but it can hard to differentiate gatekeepers from nurturers when you’re simply scared of defining who you are.) I like that there’s no one authoritarian answer to what a word means, though I worry like any good left-winger about the undue or unchecked influence of a google or the likelihood of instead some kid stumbling onto a site that perverts curiosity to inspire shame. I love so much that the young people who work for me delight in disappearing down a spiral of Wiki, YouTube and any other primary source they can get their hands on to learn about some incredibly specific phenomenon or sub-culture or person, going from unknown to expert in a matter of hours.

And for all that I love words, I love how they keep changing, and how these institutions, no matter how much more modern, still struggle to keep up. In 2016, Merriam-Webster added cisgender, genderqueer and the gender-neutral title Mx., according to this tweet and then this contentious, cautionary article in the MetroWeekly. None of those words are in the most wispy aspirations of my ancient history edition.

But so, so many other words are. I’m still not sure what to make of them, what to do with them. Should I pick a new word—at random? at my fancy? at yours?—and write or say something about it each week? Should I post pretty pictures to Instagram of the most unlikely or forgotten? Should I stop obsessing over individual words as a means of procrastination from writing a whole book of them strung deliberately together?

Clearly I’m willing to take suggestions or requests. What is the one word you would, or have, look up first?

Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark

I had such good intentions. I made it one week into 2018 sticking to my promise that I’d regularly write something, somewhere that at least some other people could read it.

Then the flu was a plague upon our house, then it was awards season, in between a furious mix of work and travel and suddenly it’s mid-March and this is the first full weekend I’ve been healthy and home since MLK Day.


I’m resisting the urge to abandon the hard-won resolutions I’d made my around to by the end of 2017. We’ll just call this an early Spring reboot. I’m trying every day, every week, to think about what I am doing to care for my body, my mind, and my future.

In between rounds of the flu, we did yoga while watching whales leap through the ocean off the coast of Mexico during a short trip to Puerto Vallarta to celebrate 10 years since our first date.

I read a lot, from a Marcia Clark-penned mystery novel I found by the pool at the hotel, to a YA novel that had been on my list for a while, the amazing Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, to a very un-me fantasy-history novel, The Philosopher’s Flight.

By far the most influential thing I inhaled while spending a lot of time in bed was a recommendation from my friend Annika, Rachael Herron’s Fast-Draft Your Memoir. Annika wrote in her TinyLetter that she’d finally pushed way into a long-contemplated writing project thanks to Rachael’s advice.

My formal education as a writer is a little all over the place—journalism school broke my ability to form short, declarative sentences into crumbs and then helped me rebuild that skill, one excruciating class at a time, which for all that I tend to shrug off the value of a Medill degree is in retrospect fairly invaluable. I took a series of MediaBistro screenwriting classes shortly after moving to LA, which I snobbily liked in large part because they were for working writers, mostly journalists, rather than casual hobbyists. It was more focused on how to tackle a new format than a reassuring or nurturing support group. Other writer friends contributed their own story-breaking best-practices from the various camps/cults/classes they’d paid for. I learned a lot from blogs Jane Espenson and John August faithfully updated, often daily, through the mid-2000s. I have a dog-chewed and dog-eared copy of How to Write a Romantic Comedy that more than fulfilled its title promise.

Mostly, I wrote. I wrote thousands of essays and blog posts, both on my own and for work at Popnography, dozens if not hundreds of feature and cover stories for magazines, a short film and three (four?) screenplays, one of which I revised and rewrote seriously for the better part of maybe five years, parts of a half-dozen other short story collections or novels. In my bones and heart I’m a writer, even if in this phase of my career I rarely do it for my day job.

So one night, only sort of high on cold meds, I bought Fast-Draft Your Memoir for six bucks on Kindle and figured, especially with Annika’s recommendation, that at the least I might find something that would help me advance the almost-ready-to-be-written book I finally found myself on the cusp of tackling. Then, as Jessica joked, I did a very typical Shana thing and speed-read a book about how to speed-write a book. Two hours later I’d highlighted and annotated my way through Herron’s advice and even begrudgingly hauled out a notebook to follow her instructions to write an outline.

I have, I am pretty sure, two big books in me that I need to write before I die, and for the last three or four months or so I’ve been inching my way toward being ready to finally tackle the first. I’d thought maybe it should be a novel. Narratively neater, more easily compacted, free of the hurt that still stings in recalling a very precise and largely awful time in my life.

This book changed my mind, if only because for the first time it was actually simple to outline what parts of the story needed to be told and which could be skipped. (Herron’s perhaps obvious but important advice: a memoir is not an unabridged autobiography. It’s a story.)


Just before the flu struck, the first lay-on-the-floor yoga class of the year included the option to draw a card from a deck of intentions. I’d been agitated through the first part of the session, more distracted than usual due to some work drama that just wouldn’t fade from the front of my mind.

Instead of trying to find some elusive clear consciousness, eventually, I’d prompted myself to consider the tiny spark of the book idea I’d been trying to tease into more, and in a blissed-out haze of long-held horizontal poses and calming chimes, I felt my mind unspool across the entirety of a story. I could see the beginning, middle and end. I knew what to title it. I understood how, though the story had started 16 years before, I was only just now ready to assemble it properly.

I rose from my mat at the end of the class feeling light, buzzing with a calm certitude. Then I drew a card from the deck the teacher had left on her mat at the head of the room.

CREATE, the oracle said, and I may not be one who often asks the universe what to do but I’m also not one to ignore when I’m given such a clear answer.

Annika’s already made her way through a first draft, which is amazing and so exciting and inspiring. I’m just now finding my way into something resembling a regular writing schedule and I’m sure around some unforeseen corner I will hit a wall, hard, like always happens.

But for now it still feels absurdly easy. I lived this story a long time ago, and I’ve spent some part of probably every day since trying to make sense of it, telling myself over and over how I survived. That I survived. Now it’s time to write it down for real.