In January I gave myself a wondrous gift: a week away to do nothing but write poetry. “Nothing but write” means, to me, no TV, no phone, no clock, no schedule. Just me, simple food, tea, some sacramental chocolate, and whichever Muse shows up.


What I hadn’t anticipated about my week away was that, in the middle of the first draft of my first poem, my computer would freeze up and die – wouldn’t let me reboot or even shut it down.


I took this to be a direct challenge from the Muse, about how committed I was to my writing. I rose to her challenge by hauling in tablets of paper, a handful of pens, and my Roget’s Thesaurus. I was going to spend this writing week doing things the old-fashioned way.


I had forgotten how much I love a real Roget’s Thesaurus. I’d gotten used to relying on the thesaurus built into my Mac, or the one on But both of those are really just synonym collections, not the real thesaurus deal. And for someone who loves words, the Roget’s Thesaurus has no substitute.



One scans a list of synonyms, but one dives into the pages of Roget’s. For instance: I had placed the word “interesting” in brackets into a poem to indicate that it was just a placeholder for a better word that I’d find later.


(“Interesting” is a lazy word. If someone asks me how last night’s disastrous meeting went, and I don’t want to lie, nor do I want to give them the blow-by-blow, I answer, “It was interesting.” “Interesting” hides more than it reveals.)


So I looked up “interesting” at the back section of the thesaurus, and found the number 617.5 beside it. (That refers not to a page number, but to a place in the main part of the book.) At section 617.5 Allurement I found a whole collection of substitute words, clustered in gradations of meaning. One of those words was “delightful” along with the recommendation that I search further at 829.8 Pleasureableness.


When I got to 829.8, I noticed that 830 Painfulness followed, then 831 Content and then Discontent, Regret, Relief, Aggravation, Cheerfulness, Sadness, each with their own full baskets of synonyms. Before 829.8 Pleasureableness there were 828 Pain and 827 Pleasure, and Excitability and other nuances.


Now what was it that I was looking for when I started?  Uh-oh! I’d forgotten one of the cardinal rules of using a thesaurus: keep track of the sequence. Like Hansel dropping breadcrumbs on the path to the witch’s house, you must keep track of where you’ve been because you’re not necessarily sure of where you’re going. This keeping track of the path is something my computer doesn’t do for me, but with pen and paper it’s easy to make marginal notes – so long as I remember to do it!


There is nothing quite so satisfying as finding exactly the right word for a poem – one with the precise meaning, one with the right number of syllables, one beginning with the sound needed to complete a string of alliteration. That perfect word may have arrived from a totally unexpected corner of Wordland, but suddenly there it is, and the poet places it with a smug “thunk” just where it belongs.


I came home from my poetry week with abundance from the Muse: 23 drafts of new poems, waiting to be transcribed into digital form. My computer tech has repaired my laptop, and all is well in my little world of technology.


But rather than returning my analog Roget’s Thesaurus to the bookshelf, I’ve decided to keep it close at hand, to inspire, to inform and, sometimes, simply to lure me away to play for a while in the Land of Words.

11 replies
  1. Loretta A Peters
    Loretta A Peters says:

    Cynthia, I am reminded of our days at Hildegard House and when you copy-edited my paper for Sophia Center. What great fun! Enjoying your blogs so much especially this one on words! Lets hear it for the old-fashioned approach to life and your (our) ability to be resourceful.

  2. Marian Blue
    Marian Blue says:

    I enjoyed this as a user of “interesting” on students’ papers when at a loss for something else to say!
    I also enjoy word research and still turn to the thesaurus, heavy-weight dictionary, and even my rhyming dictionary for play time. Sometimes, I start there for poems that lurk in the shadows of meaning.
    Thank you for a good read!

  3. Eileen Soskin
    Eileen Soskin says:

    words, words, words – I’m not sick of words! I’m also a fan of writing – actual writing with a writing implement. It feels more authentic and draws out different things from me. Bravo, Cynthia! Eileen

  4. gary
    gary says:

    My thesaurus (doesn’t that sound like some rare, exotic recently discovered dinosaur? thesaurus eruditus)

    Words are like birds weaving a nest of straw and gossip
    building bridges between what we remember
    opening doors to what we do not yet know

    Thanks Cynthia

  5. Val
    Val says:

    I love playing with words as they are – looking at the word from a new line of light or shadow – above and below, beside and around. Sometimes Words just POP and I am amazed. Thanks Peace, Val

  6. Chris belding
    Chris belding says:

    In honor of your dedication to your art:

    There once was a poet from Whidbey
    Who retreated to write…and did she!
    Got down to the bones
    Crafting 23 poems
    And now she’s in an edit frenzy!

    I love you,

    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      There once was a woman who limmericked,
      requiring some effort and gimmer-ick.
      The people she chose
      felt quite grandiose,
      and thought her work nearly Homeric.

  7. Nancy Thurston
    Nancy Thurston says:

    I know right where my Thesaurus is tucked–in the back of my closet. I too have been lured away from that gem by the weak but convenient electronic option. I’ll pull it out today as there are a few words I’d like to change in a piece I’m working on. Thanks for the reminder, and fun read.


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