Thursday, August 19, 2010

Use Words People Understand

Craft is a pleasing word, a lovely word, especially when taken in context with vehicle, each suggesting a medium of transportation, for moving you from one place to the next.  A horse is a conveyance; you would appreciate most horses where ever you met them, but you would not think of either as a craft or a vehicle.  Somehow both words became embedded in your sensitivity from a line of dialogue when you first saw the motion picture The Philadelphia Story.  Speaking of a craft, a yacht, really, the Tracy character, portrayed by Katherine Hepburn, said of it with a fond sigh, "She was yare."  You could not wait to consult the word in a dictionary, mentally fondling it, loving the sound of it, eager to have occasion to use it.  When you finally did, an editor had circled it and written in the margin "Use words people can understand."  This did nothing to diminish your fondness for the word and the sense it conveyed of a craft making graceful progress, exuding a sensual joy in movement.  "People should not be resistant to new words,"  you told the editor.  As you recall, you did not work long for him.

It is possible to think of craft in yet another way, as a verb and a noun, to craft a sentence or a story or an essay, as a word to connote the making of those splendid things and for the same reasons of which Dylan Thomas wrote:


In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

What a comfort then to aspire to having a craft, a vehicle, as it were, for conveying words and ideas and pictures, moving them along by evocation as opposed to the kinds of descriptions that seem to fit more in instruction manuals than in stories and essays.  As you tap the gunwales of your craft before launching it or, often times having already set it afloat only to notice leaks, seepage, over lading, you are in a comfortable stream with the men and women whose works you have come to admire over the years and who have each in some special way added a sense of the yare-ness of their craft to the destination you intend when you set forth.  You have also learned from many of them the literary equivalent of an awareness you came by on your own.  An event or destination is never exactly as you anticipate; it is either far more pleasing than you'd supposed or far more dreadful than you'd suspected.  The point of arrival frequently changes when you use your vehicle.  This is because you may have made wrong turns or discovered a short cut or received information directing you to an unanticipated destination.

When you notice a dent or scratch in your vehicle, you take it to a body shop to have repairs made.  Even as you write this, you are aware of a dent on your Yaris, the scar of a falling branch in a wind storm.  There is also a slight scratch on a fender, the result of you miscalculating your closeness to a large boulder adjacent a neighborhood park where you walk and picnic with Sally.  Neither of these repairs will cause the vehicle to run any better.  You know that, but there is an innate sense of wanting to care for all vehicles you may have in your possession.  A vehicle is, after all, a tool, a cohort in getting you started, then delivered.  You would be in desperate straits if your record of departures and arrivals in your Yaris were of a kind with your departures into stories and essays, some of which have been years in the making.  The positive side of that is the way you have been dealing with these tools, these vehicles, these craft for years and are at a plateau right now where in the midst of one journey, you unexpectedly see the way to use portions or all of a journey on which you'd embarked in the past.

Tony Judt, a British historian, university professor, intellectual and cultural critic, just recently dead this past month from the Lou Gehrig disease, wanted his stone to read, "He wrote words."  His use of words was so precise and elegant that you felt a connection with his process, his craft.  Your hope for your craft is found in that old German word, yare:  quick, active, lively, graceful.


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