Monday, July 29, 2013

The Ill-Tempered Sentence

A few weeks ago, at a regular meeting with an editorial client, you suggested he look up a particular word in a particular dictionary, The OED, The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language.

You were emphatic about suggesting The OED, not at all because your client was born in the Devon coastal town of Lyme Regis, rather because OED not only ranks the various definitions of each entry but as well because OED is noted for capturing the first known written use of the word, then more or less tracing its history, up to the moment of the most recent printing of this vast storehouse of a reference guide.  

OED definitions are relevant in this case because the dictionary is a quite valid analog to the core sample, a hole dug into the earth to extract a history of the various layers deposited in the place of sampling over the Milena.  The dictionary is akin to the rings of trees or the levels of enamel on the teeth of animals or reptiles; it shows history, evolution, origins, and suggestions for usage.

The world you wished the client to consult in OED was partnership, a word which, on the surface, would not seem to require an entry large enough to require much room for definition beyond its historical meaning.  At the time of your suggestion, you had no idea where this historical trail would lead you and your client in reference to a book underway dealing with the partnership between humans and animals.

It would be nice, if impractical in terms of space required to have your own copy of OED.  A digital edition would be a high class problem, so too would an abridged version, printed in smaller type, equipped with a magnifying lens to make for easier reading.

A practical matter for you is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition, which is based on the OED principles of historical use, and which, to your great joy, has a usage committee composed of a number of men and women who write.

When you are away from home, with no AH4 close to hand, you rely as so many of your acquaintance do, on Google, thinking to check if warranted with OED and AH4.  Whether you have your MacBook Pro on hand or must rely on your iPhone, you are still not far from some responsible storehouse of meaning for the thousands of words a person is apt to encounter during the warp and weft of a day.

With a toolkit brimming with words, we have access to describing the feelings that inflict themselves upon us like any number of other natural disasters such as fires, floods, tsunami waves, earthquakes, landslides, and avalanches.  In addition, ideas sometimes have similar effects of catastrophic natures, rendering us, in irony, speechless, but as well inchoate, angry, inspired, delighted, curious, resentful, and apprehensive.

A vocabulary in general and words in specificity would seem to address the problems of communicating ideas.  The worm in that seeming logic  is the belief that sufficient tools can make or fix anything.  This is of a piece with saying that so many keys on a piano should make it easy to express musical ideas along with the ability to evoke emotions in individuals who listen to those ideas.  

Musicians such as Bach and Haydn and Mozart, to name a mere few, certainly had ease in discerning the ranges of pitch and tone and harmony resident in instruments.  Bach even understood and expressed in writing how each of the available key signatures in Western music evoked distinctive emotions (which explains, for instance, why Mozart chose the key of D minor when he wished to convey the most melancholy tonality).  As well, Bach understood well enough the progression of intervals in Western music to write The Well-Tempered Clavichord, wherein he investigated the properties of all twenty-four major and minor keys. Even these well-advanced artists in the language of music needed considerable practice to be able to put their understanding of the language of music into tangible compositions.

You're fascinated with the theory that early reading experiences, both positive and negative, led most of us who would compose our own works to believe these works were easily come by and that they were arrived at in one vision, perhaps mulled over a bit, then set down.  You recognize that naive belief in yourself.  In addition, you're aware that you'd made your commitment to the process well in advance of discovering how difficult the process was.

In subsequent years, you've experienced the thrumming and tingling response of validation upon learning how Beethoven, for all his amazing swirl of musical vision, did the equivalent of a tight line edit on his compositions, fussing, fidgeting, pushing players beyond their own awareness of their ability.  Even Mozart, who seemed to be able to compose works of stunning complexity in short bursts of effort, needed to revise, to replay with his inner orchestra, often many times over to get the crisp sharpness and braided complexity that so defines him.

Writers should be able to do this as well, but so far as you know, only a scant few men and women were able to do so with less than several drafts.

If you're not careful, you'll find yourself able to deconstruct things in order to affect a style or understand a theme, but will you be able to capture the focus of readers, then hold it, spinning the ideas and feelings through the medium of the words?  

You know it when you see it, more in the works of others than yourself. This awareness comes to you through the courtesy of men and women who've been writing for hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands.  They're all aware of how many hours of practice they needed to be able to make the immense difficulty appear simple to you.

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