Saturday, December 10, 2016

Vocabulary: The Swiss Army Knife of Story

One of your favorite approaches to keeping track of the various aspects of your personality it the literal and figurative emptying out of your pockets. On the most basic of levels, you enjoy recalling the contents of your pockets as a pre-puberty boy, where you were sure to have a pocket knife, a key chain, the stub of a number two pencil, a pocket-sized notebook, a penny-candy-sized box of licorice cigarettes, a small boy meant to hold wooden matches, and either a glass or plastic magnifying glass.

The wooden match box either held five or six matches or a lady bug or small turtle of the sort sold in those remarkable ads on the backs of comic books, with ample supplies of what you believed to be sufficient nourishment for the ladybug or turtle.

Not much has changed over the years; the match box is gone, so too the licorice cigarettes and magnifying glass, although the function you had in mind for the magnifying glass--using the sun to start a fire-has changed, you reckon you could indeed start a fire using the lens of the reading glasses you sometimes carry about.

Another way of measuring you in relationship to the state and condition of story, both within yourself and in the world about you as reflected by novels and short stories, is a laundry list of dramatic elements which you note in a pocket-sized booklet, then assign an hierarchical order.

The top, voice, and bottom, plot,of these lists has remained constant for at least twenty years, the most significant shift being from the former number one, character.

The interior has changed; so has the increased number of ingredients or elements; you're pleased to note how many more aspects of story you recognize as you continue to write, edit, and teach. When you looked at your laundry list today, you noticed an addition you'd not considered in earlier years. In consequence, you'll spend some time wondering why not.

Your first encounter with the eponymous dramatic romance/adventure, Cyrano de Bergerac, sent legions of delight marching through your imagination, not because Cyrano was such an accomplished swordsman but because of his poetic expertise, in short, his vocabulary.  You were of an age where you were hopeful your vocabulary and its use would stand you in the good regard of the young ladies whose regard you sought.

The idea of words as weapons, when necessary, and tools, when appropriate, seemed the most valuable possessions a person could have, allowing you to judge others by their own vocabulary, to effect friendships and to pursue your growing dream, which was to be able to wrest some measurable standard of living from the worlds where story and opinion held sway.

At one point in your twenties, you came into possession of a Swiss Army knife which had as one of its blades a magnifying lens. Soon after, you were able to make the connection for yourself that vocabulary is the Swiss Army Knife of language and of story. Then came the additional awareness: your vocabulary was your survival tool.

Except that you lost the Swiss Army knife and, somehow, your vocabulary had taken on a number of what you call distancing words, pretentious synonyms, words sounding Latinate and formal, entire phrases you once held dear seeming to turn on you to produce if anything the opposite of the effect you'd intended.  

At one point, in admiration of Thomas Babington McCauley, you accused a person of having "a morbid propensity to sloth and procrastination."  His response was immediate. "You calling me a lazy fucker?" (You of course were.) Whereupon he caught you with a right hook that led to what was then called a mouse, a blackening about the right ocular orbit, er, eye.

Vocabulary defines each character; it tells use what and who the person is, what she wants, and, by implication, how likely she is to succeed. You have to forget your own vocabulary and in its place construct one for each character, mindful of how important it is for no two characters to sound alike, regardless of where or how they were born, went to school, what jobs or positions they held.

Vocabulary turns conversation into dialogue, event into story, stasis into the impending story of combustion and confrontation

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