Monday, November 5, 2012


At one time in your late teens, you had the unfortunate tendency to confuse vocabulary with intelligence, which was bad enough.  You also took vocabulary to be a means by which you keep pace with and out-write those authors whose works had begun to matter to you.

This last step was a particular disaster because in large measure you were reading on two levels, the level of your own enjoyment and the level of being introduced by teachers to what has been called The Western Canon.  To render the former matter at its simplest, you thought most writers of The Western Canon placed a premium on vocabulary ahead of story.

As for the latter pathway to literary disaster, you failed to note how such worthies who meant so much to you as Mark Twain did or Willa Cather did, or F. Scott Fitzgerald did, and while you’re at it, why not throw in Stephen Crane and, okay, James M. Cain, and Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and why stop there, why not Jane Austen—why was it vocabulary was one of the last things you thought about with reference to them?

You did not think about, nor in your examinations and papers, did you write about vocabulary.  You thought and wrote about their approaches to story and their ways of relating the small, close-at-hand to the larger and more inclusive.  Of course you referred to this process as synecdoche.  Considering many of your papers and examinations were read by teaching assistants, such uses of vocabulary got you noticed rather than challenged your understanding of the real process.

At the time of which you refer, you could still get those small, throw-away gifts of paper sculpting which you’d toss into a glass of water, curious to see what form the sculpting would take when it “opened” to its intended result.  With some degree of pain at the memory, you recall describing the process as the Entelechy—“When the dried-out paper sculpting was placed in water, it opened to its entelechy.”  Thus did you discuss how Cather or Crane, writing about one person, could be interpreted as writing about a larger spectrum.

Not to forget your similar use of Fitzgerald’s observation from his longish short story, “The Rich Boy.”  He wrote:  “Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created--nothing.”  Once again, comments in the margins from ”them,” because you couldn’t let it go at that, you had to throw in the synecdoche trope.

Those years are behind you now, but the words remain burned in to your memory, words such as rebarbative and prolepsis, and pleonasm, ekphrastic, and one of your favorites, tantivy.  Thus have you given yourself yet another search-and-destroy mission to find such words and send them packing.  Sometimes one of them slips through and you will hear from an editor or a reader or both.  Sometimes, while reading a novel or a review written by John Banville, you’ll recognize the same fascination with vocabulary in addition to his—dare you say it?—grip on some form or other of synecdoche, and you’ll nod in admiration.  He can get away with it.  He does get away with it.  You admire the hell out of it, and it still tempts, but you edit the hell out of it.

You love the sets of tools you’ve needed to acquire in order to attempt the craft of writing.  Sometimes, you take great sensual pleasure in spreading some of the tools before you, wiping them down, squirting a bit of 3-in-1 Oil or perhaps WD-40 or in some cases of acute rust and stickiness, both.

Knowing what to take out is as important a part of vocabulary as the

Understanding what goes in, where, and how are no less integral parts of the larger vocabulary of story.

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