Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Word with You

"The right word," your literary ideal was wont to say, "not its second cousin." He also spoke of the vast difference between the lightning bug and lightning. It was also he who said he wished to be in Kentucky when the end of the world came about because Kentucky was always twenty years behind the times.

You admire Mark Twain for his specificity in word choice, but even more admiration comes forth from his way of squeezing humor from the precise, most effective order of placement of those specific words. His goal of specificity led you to collecting and browsing dictionaries as though they were novels and short stories.

In later years, you took up with a writer of your generation, pleased with yourself and simultaneously envious of this slightly younger than you Philip Roth. You became fascinated with his character Lonoff, the writer, who spoke to another character, arguably Roth's alter ego, Zuckerman. Lonoff, likely modeled after Bernard Malamud, spoke of pushing words around, perhaps gaining an acceptable sentence for a day's work.

You had (and still have) little patience for John Updike (a year and a day older than Roth); who was indeed able to bleed on the page as indeed Twain's and Roth's characters did, but there was a difference. When Twain's and Roth's (and certainly Malamud's ) characters bled, the blood had the qualities of the pre-Cambrian Sea, as does the blood of most of us. When Updike's characters bleed, there is no pre-Cambrian Sea, rather a Coca-Cola.

For the longest time, you sought to drive your stories through the force of the words themselves, seeking moral, philosophical, and even intellectual depths. But, alas, these depths, even if achieved, are the depths of description. They lack the inclusion of evocation or, as some would call it, subtext.

Close, but no cigar, as they say.

You believe this: The right word does not call attention to itself. The right word has no ambition of becoming a lightning bug or in any sense a peer of the realm of literary royalty. The right word is more like Shakespeare's observation of the poor player who struts and frets his moment on the stage, then is heard no more.

The right word reminds you of many of the English actors you so admire, persons of differing ages and origins, products of rigorous acting discipline, whose names you have to look up even while admiring their superb skills (Nicola Walker comes to mind).

You're chagrined to recall how, well over ten years ago, you devoted significant class time to demonstrate how one wrong word can produce the distraction that throws the reader out of the story. This brings to you the metaphor of boarding the southbound train here in Santa Barbara, your destination that enormous urban sprawl of your origins, Los Angeles.

Indeed, some one is waiting for you in Los Angeles for a specific purpose.

Whether you recognize it or not, each time you commit to reading a story or novel, watching a play or film, you are boarding a vehicle with an embedded destination.

The effect you're talking about in relation to right and wrong words in story is of a piece with you boarding a train in Santa Barbara with a Los Angeles destination. But suppose a group of conductors approach you directly after the train has stopped at the Burbank Airport, then forcibly escorted you from the train.

You are inordinately fond of the reviews and novels of the Irish writer, John Banville, even though your interests in him are more for his judgment and vocabulary than his storytelling. You frequently find words in his novels that cause you to consult your American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language. You even feel the envy that Banville is able to use such words in his texts while you are not.

The point of these paragraphs: We don't read for words, we read for story. We don't read for the stops made by the local train, we read for the express. 

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