Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Right Word--Not Its Second Cousin

 In one of the great ironies you have yet witnessed, you set forth years ago, determined to build a significant vocabulary with the ardent belief that the larger your vocabulary, the greater your toolkit for setting forth meaningful story and narrative. 

This quest was a deliberate part of your wish to become a writer. To you, this decision meant an acknowledged contract to deliver goods of feeling and clarity. Indeed, many of the men and women whose works you admired seemed to have at their command an array of words that would send you to the dictionary, only to discover how important these new words were in helping to plumb the myriad ways of the human condition.

Even before you had given yourself over to what you hoped was your profession to be, you were considered by teachers to have an above average vocabulary and an asshole by some of your contemporaries for seeming to use vocabulary as a way of buying in to some special status, or lowering someone from one run on a ladder to a lower rung.

The goal was to have as many words as possible in tow, the better to make intricate, braided concepts clear and to be able to layer your stories with untold nuance. The irony struts forth to steal the scene by the simple result: many of these newly acquired words, Latin, Greek, and Anglo-Saxon in origin are simply exact translations of words already in play or brought on stage under such circumstances as, say, the Norman invasion, to produce language both Norman and Anglo-Saxon could agree upon.

As if that were not irony enough, consider how many of the words you troubled to learn, classify, and put to use in writing and speech do not at all provide the clarification you see in a kind of Platonic ideal, they actually muddy the effect of the sentence or intent in which you have them placed.

You have a list of about forty words such as very, somewhat, beautiful, forceful, exciting, and lugubrious, which at first sound appear as confrontational and exacting as charged dialogue in a well-written drama.

On closer inspection, words such as possibly, intermittently, seemingly, and disingenuous emerge like compromises obtained in an evenly divided congress, trying to pass some legislature. These are words you used with purpose and the sincerity of belief found in a person in despair taking a patent medicine to abate a painful symptom.

Each time you encounter a word such as these fateful light-weights, your Self in charge of Communication groans at the loss. This is the groan of learning. Enough groans, enough revision and editing add to that learning process called Muscle Memory.

Whether he wanted the job or not, Mark Twain became a mentor to you. "Can't you see I'm dead?" he might ask, but your reply is up to the task. "Yes, but your words live." Mark Twain was fond of saying, "The right word--not it's second cousin." With him in mind, you are working your way toward the level of first cousin, if not the right word.                                 

Some of your early submissions used words you thought would insure acceptance but which instead only hastened the time first readers at magazines and book publishing houses stopped reading a manuscript of yours, slid it into the SASE, self addressed stamped envelope, envelope of manuscript box, then got it posthaste to the closest post office for its return to you, sometimes with a handwritten acknowledgment of your industry rather than your story.

Until recently, when you were accused of discriminating against weasels by referring to words you disliked as "weasel words,", you've attempted to drop that meme from your active use, convinced as well that clarity and certainty are in themselves, with regard to fiction and dramatic writing, desirable but uncertain presences.

No comments: