[marginalia] let he who is without sin hurl the first haggis : : james w. morris

Like most fiction writers, I spend a significant portion of my time alone, obsessively and intensively fretting about the personal problems of people who don’t exist. Whether an inborn proclivity for solitude leads a person to accept a calling to write fiction, or whether a fervid desire to write fiction forces an otherwise normal person to develop a tolerance for being on his own is a controversy on which I take no stance. I’m not worried about it either way.

Neither am I concerned about the fact that I talk to myself when I’m alone. I often compose sentences aloud, voicing possible dialog, or sounding out hard-wrought descriptive passages, listening ardently for the music I want them to make.

What I am worried about is that lately when I talk to myself I’ve been doing so with a Scottish accent.

My first thought upon having this realization was just what anyone else’s would be: “Hey, I’m suddenly speaking with a Scottish accent! I must have had a stroke!” But then I remembered that having a stroke makes speakers of English produce a French accent, not a Scottish one, and I felt a bit better.

But the question remains: why Scottish? I have had some minor contact with that culture over the years, but enjoy no direct ancestry from that country that I know of, and even if I did, my family on both sides have been in America for centuries. It’s true that my grandmother’s second husband was a Scottish immigrant, and I liked him and occasionally emulated the interesting way he talked, but he was no blood relative, so I can’t imagine how any previously-dormant, burr-inducing gene or revenant race memory could cause my new way of speaking.

Of course, as a writer, I have found much to admire over the years about the literary culture of Scotland. A number of great authors hail from there—Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Burns, the nation’s premier poet, who in the 18th century wrote these memorable lines:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!

These thoughtfully constructed, sincerely admiring lines were part of a lengthy (eight stanza) love poem addressed to—you guessed it—a haggis. How very Scottish.

Speaking of haggis, I experienced some hands-on contact with that moderately-disgusting feature of Scottish culture in 1998, when I attended a local festival and managed second place in a haggis-hurling contest. A haggis, by the way, is a traditional Scottish pudding made from a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, chopped up and mixed with oatmeal and suet, and slow-cooked in the animal’s stomach. (If you don’t know what suet is, be glad.) Creating a contest in which the (surprisingly dense and heavy) haggis is tossed for distance might seem an arbitrary exercise, but to me it makes perfect sense: the first thing any sane person should want to do when faced with a haggis is throw it as far away as possible.

Maybe I’m just bored with my normal way of talking. I’m from Philadelphia, and we have a distinct, if not entirely charming accent, being fairly well-known by linguistic types for pronouncing the word “water” as “wood-er.” Also, try to stop us from substituting an “f” sound for some our word-ending “th”s, and inserting an arbitrary “h” between any “s” and a “tr” we come across. Thus, we might say:

“Yo, go wiff me up Fiff Shtreet to get some wooder ice.”

Let’s face it: you can get tired of this sort of thing after a while. So is it entirely unreasonable to imagine I might make an unconscious decision to employ a more enjoyable accent—one with trilling “r”s and rising inflections on sentences that aren’t even questions—as long as no one else is there to hear it?

But writers are as superstitious as ballplayers, and we worry about about little things affecting our individual prose style the way a batter worries about his swing. Could talking to myself, composing sentences in an accent other than my traditional one, infect my precious prose? Might it, in some indefinable manner, add a deadly taint of falsity? A P.G. Wodehouse story read in a Jamaican or Transylvanian accent would still be quite amusing, yet ridiculous in a wholly unintended way. An author can be always be silly but should never be ridiculous.

Sometimes the best way to consider a proposition is to reverse-engineer it: can I picture Robert Burns amusing himself by speaking in a Philadelphia accent while penning paeans to haggis? Well, no. He was true to himself and his culture, and I should probably just shut up and be true to mine. As one of the great philosophers (Popeye) once said: I yam what I yam. Besides, I’ve realized there is a locally-made foodstuff I could write about which is the gastronomic and moral equivalent of haggis—scrapple. This product is the equivalent of haggis because anyone contemplating eating some should be equally afraid to know what is in it. A cement-colored meat pate, scrapple is molded into a brick shape, then sliced and fried. According to admittedly unverified rumors I heard as a kid, it contains mostly ground-up pigs’ guts, blood, eyes, lips, bones, gristle, snouts, hoofs, and tails, as well as whatever was swept up from the floor of the slaughterhouse at the end of the night—including sawdust. As a vegetarian, I’m going to find it a quite a writing challenge to compose an eight-stanza love poem about scrapple—but at least whatever I produce will have a genuinely Philadelphian accent.


James W. Morris
is a graduate of LaSalle University in Philadelphia, where he was awarded a scholarship for creative writing. He has published dozens of short stories, humor pieces, and essays in various literary magazines, including PHILADELPHIA STORIES and ZAHIR. He has also written one play, RUDE BABY, which was recently produced, and worked for a time as a joke writer for Jay Leno.


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