Ask the Writers

Islanders Write panelists share their favorite big words, beaches, and more.


For the past three years, we’ve asked the speakers taking part in Islanders Write to answer a series of random questions. This year we had just four questions. The following is a selection of the answers from those who got back to us before our deadline.

What’s your favorite $10 word, and in case we don’t know it, what does it mean?

John Hough Jr.: I’ll give you my least favorite word: solipsism. I’ve read the definition over and over, and I come across it now and then as I read, and I still don’t know what it means.

Geraldine Brooks: Freudenfreude — joy in others’ success. We have too much schadenfreude and not enough freudenfreude.

Lara O’Brien: I don’t own a $10 word but I have a $10 bra and my advice is to avoid them.

Junot Diaz: Decolonial —  to a person of color living in this society it means to make yourself profoundly joyously free.

Richard North Patterson: Anodyne — “mentally soothing,” or, in my usage, so bland as to substitute for thought.

Peter Kramer: Thrasonical. Nombrilism, just for the spelling. Eleemosynary (same root as alms). And for overall fun: mondegreen.

Arnie Reisman: Eleemosynary — one of my favorite $10 words. Means “charitable,” probably from “alms.” But when I first heard it, I thought someone had said “eely mercenary,” which made me think of a creepy soldier of fortune.

Nancy Aronie: I don’t know any big words.

Tony Horwitz: Pulchritude — an archaic word for beauty, or comeliness (also out of fashion). Probably last used in reference to Helen of Troy.

Nicole Galland: Phlogiston — “a substance believed by 18th century chemists to exist in all combustible bodies, and to be released via combustion.” Discovered in the last stanza of Marge Piercy’s “For the Young Who Want To” :

“The real writer is one

who really writes. Talent

is an invention like phlogiston

after the fact of fire.

Work is its own cure. You have to

like it better than being loved.”

Susan Wilson: Today my favorite word is shambolic. Definition: Obviously disorganized and confused. First reference 1970, which is why it doesn’t appear in my venerable 1939 Webster library-edition dictionary. Also, it’s kind of a British word. It caught my eye when David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, wrote that the recent Republican convention “was the most shambolically misrun convention in memory.” What a word! The arcane meaning of its obvious precursor, “shambles,” is an abattoir.  Kind of appropriate.

Clyde Phillips: Sesquipedalian — means having many syllables; another way of saying “a very long word.”

What’s the worst advice as a writer you’ve ever given or gotten?

Callie Crossley: To find your voice, copy someone else’s style — advice given to me.

John Hough Jr.: The worst advice I’ve had, I think, was from the editor who told me not to try and write a book about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, because I’d never ridden a horse.

Nancy Aronie:  In 1954 I wrote to my Uncle George, who was an editor at the Herald Tribune, and told him I had won a gold key in journalism for an essay I had written in my eighth-grade English class, and that I wanted to be a writer. And he sent me a personal note with these words (I’m not kidding): “GIRLS DON’T WRITE.”

What’s interesting was that I didn’t have a moment of anger or disappointment. I just moved to another desire/career choice: teaching. I’d have some choice responses now, but that was then. And maybe it turned out perfectly, because when I actually did begin to write (at around age 40) I had some things to write about.

Geraldine Brooks: “You can’t make people care.”  From an editor in Australia. I actually think it’s one of a writer’s highest obligations.

Cynthia Riggs: Not from me! “Write when the muse inspires you.”

Junot Díaz: I try to give as little advice as possible because in the end, what do I know?

Richard North Patterson: “Write what you know” — not a very good basis for writing 22 novels. Best? “Writing is rewriting.”

Peter Kramer: Write what you know.

Tony Horwitz: As a cub reporter in Fort Wayne, Ind., an editor urged me to keep at it for five years and I’d make statehouse reporter; five more years of hard labor and I’d get to cover Washington. Best bad advice I ever received, because it convinced me that I should explore other writing options.

Misan Sagay: Don’t worry about the contract details – we’ll get into that later

Do you prefer South Beach or the Sound?

Nicole Galland: The Sound, because I’m a narrative junkie. South Beach is obsessed with the next wave  — it arrives, packs its punch, and is gone, like a haiku on steroids. The next will one also be a haiku, on a similar theme, but independent. The North Shore has more of a long-form narrative vibe — the tides take half a day to leave their marks, while the boulders and cliffs are reliable recurring characters. There is more time and texture on the Sound. There is a through-line. I find that both seductive and reassuring.

Arnie Reisman: South Beach — if you’ve got the waves, flaunt them.

Peter Kramer: Open ocean, always.

Walter Shapiro: As a swimmer who will never match Diana Nyad, I believe that the Sound is for swimming and South Beach is for watching.

Cynthia Riggs: Quansoo on a blustery winter’s day with the sand blasting my ankles.

Misan Sagay: Sound, there are enough waves in the rest of my life!

Lara O’Brien: Love them equally like all my children.

Who would you like to vote ONTO the Island?

Joshua Hammer: George Saunders, Angela Merkel, and Roger Federer (but only if he agrees to give me tennis lessons).

Callie Crossley: Idris Elba —without his wife!

Susan Wilson: My farrier.

Clyde Phillips: Barack and Michelle Obama. Once he’s out of office, traffic won’t be such a problem, and I’d love to have them as neighbors.

Walter Shapiro: I thought for a moment of Mencken (too cranky) or the Algonquin wits (probably under the table with too many martinis by 9:30 or muttering unintelligibly with drink). But ultimately, I think I would go with Mark Twain, who cared enough about his public image to be constantly entertaining.

Richard North Patterson: Kenneth Branagh — a brilliant film and theater actor, adapter of Shakespeare, and director.

Nicole Galland: Michelle Obama, so she could appear at next summer’s Islanders Write!
Islanders Write takes place on Monday, August 8, at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury. For a complete schedule: