The A-List does a spelling bee

Way back in my storied school days, spelling bees were awful experiences that invariably left me traumatized and speechless. It’s not that I can’t spell. I’m actually amazing at it, and when the other kids got their turns at the podium, I always knew all the words they were being asked, down to the very last syllable.

Alas, whenever it was my chance to go up and get asked a word of my own, I totally blanked. I completely freaked. And somehow it was always a word I wasn’t quite sure how to spell all of a sudden. So out of a combination of shaky nerves and rotten luck, I would lose every t-i-m-e.

Starting two years ago, the horror came back in an avalanche of misplaced vowels and wrong consonants when splashy spelling bees started being thrown at Diane von Furstenberg’s boutique, filled with literary lions battling it out for a paying audience to benefit clmp (the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses). And they asked me to join in! Here was my chance to disgrace myself all over again, in front of all sorts of big names, and I seized it with the will of an arrested child playing with the very same mental blocks.

Bad idea! Two years ago at the bee, the emcee asked me to spell the fashion word “eyelet.” I assumed it was based on a little island of fabric or something, so I murmured “i-s-l-e-t.” Wrong-o! Last year, they wanted me to spell “dirndl,” and although I was only one letter off (I came up with “derndl”—sort of similar to Yentl), it was enough to eliminate me in the first round one more hideous time as I crawled away in ignominy. (See, I DO know big words.)

Last week, I tried again. (It’s for charity, after all.) And something really bizarre happened. I started getting a lot of the words right! I scored on “fauxhemian,” soared on “dysphoria,” triumphed on “hippocratic,” and rocked out on “opprobrious.” The gods of grammar were totally with me, since not only was I being asked some truly accessible words, but I was in control of my jangled nerves enough to spell them out loud.

Biggies like Rick Moody, Philip Lopate, and James Frey were getting bumped to the sidelines, and I was still there, one of the last three finalists! My childhood felt so distant at that moment–and then came “depilatory”. I’ve never had a waxing and I’m not all that afraid of body hair, so I had no idea how to spell it! I nervously mangled the word and promptly got axed for such opprobrious behavior.

That left The New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin and the aptly named writer Francine Prose to tie for the big prize–and they deserved it. They were both so flamingly knowledgeable that emcee Bob Morris and judge Jesse Scheidlower decided both ladies needed to be crowned Queen Bees or we’d be there for two more weeks.

I was thrilled to come in third. In fact, the evening restored so much of my shattered childhood confidence that I’m dying to try football again next.