Language. It is intrinsically valuable and, used correctly, purely beautiful. Words have the power to break and the power to heal. My tongue, as James says,
… is a fire… [it] sets on fire the course of history.
~ James 3:6-10
How much more powerful is the written word? Easier to tame, yes, but just as sharp. It is true that when I write I have opportunity for revision, and an astute writer will seize that opportunity and make the most of every word, milling and turning them over with every ounce of wisdom and discernment he can muster, but still, in the end, the word written is as irrevocable as the word spoken. It is only in the writer’s use of his thinking and processing time that he has the advantage over the speaker.
I dove back into a book of writing exercises recently. One that always rubs me raw at the outset, and one that I have never gotten very far into. Shocker.
Alas, I try once again.
The author of my book sees a different beauty in language, the power not so much lying in language holistically, but of the words and syntax itself. I don’t necessarily disagree – there is something inherent in each word, in each construct – but I do think that I am cut from a different cloth. I don’t want to play with words formlessly. I don’t want to abandon my senses to see what happens. (Use your best Goober Pyle voice here: I don’t dooo poetry much.)
I – with an intuition that I have failed, for these many years, to recognize – feel the words, feel the language. I feel how they flow together. I have an ear for words that flow into meaning that is deep and wide. I have no ear for mumbo-jumbo.
There are a million little writing-related things that do not come to me naturally. For instance:
- Typing especially. My pinky always inserts x for s and churns out a whole new level of redneck that makes me cringe. Every. dang. time.
- I am finally transferring the correct use of an apostrophe in the words its or it’s into the intuitive part of my brain that just knows. Slow learner.
- Some day I’ll correctly spell brethren without adding an extra syllable.
- And if things really pan out, my future will hold endless pages of prose where I don’t once swap perspectives without warning.
(If you thought about that Goober voice for any of the above examples of my struggles, you’re not alone. You can still keep your thoughts to yourself.)
I have heard it said that some people have to learn the craft, while some just do it. For the latter, everything just happens effortlessly. Spelling, punctuation, grammar, metaphor and allegory. Even placement of the fifth plural infinitive when used in its (I had to think about that one) conjugated form. They are one with their language. Most of us fall somewhere along the spectrum between verbal ignoramus and intuitive linguistic genius. Indeed, I live somewhere in the middle, where most comes naturally, yet there is still a still large enough chunk to learn to keep me busy for a lifetime.
So… this little book of writing wisdom that bedevils me wants me to play with words in ways that are uncomfortable for me. I can do that. I have before, and I will again, and some day I might get something out of it. Where I get immediately derailed is in the examples given. There are some selections of complete randomness, words just thrown down onto the page willy-nilly. Not even stream of consciousness – at least not stream of my consciousness. Literally words with no connection. I can respect the author, but still wonder what the hell they were thinking. She had some examples of her own writing, flowery and full of every bit of linguistic acrobatics she could fit in. I found if pretty, and I can see the value as an exercise, but too much practice of too much pretty leaks into too much of my writing.
Joseph Caldwell, in The Pig Did It, does that intense description thing. He does it really well, I might add. He really brings a persona to the places he writes. His details are glorious and give breath (and breadth) to his story. But it did get tiresome after a while. I was enamored for a few chapters, but the more pages I turned, the more I found myself fighting the pressing urge to scan for the important bits. His language was gorgeous (and hilarious), but I didn’t have the endurance for it long-term.
There is a balance. I want to write beautifully, but I want to write succinctly. I want the words to ooze with honey, but I want it to be warm honey so things still flow together nicely, effortlessly. Beauty can create more sticky sentences than fourth grade grammar. And it is much harder to edit out.
So, striking that balance. Yikes. What I know is that I have no urge to experiment wildly with words. None whatsoever. To stuff more in than I should on occasion–you know, for practice–sure, but not too much. While the occasional exercise might draw me out of my happy little comfort-bubble, I need a steady diet of real writing, not a collection of words on paper. I am not everyone else apparently, because it seems there are plenty of those who derive benefit from indulging in this type of exercise over and over again. Not me. Not this kid.
So where does the rubber meet the road?
I am paying attention to my own writing and its unique evolution. It is getting prettier. The beauty I want to write with is, here near the end of my novel, much more present and healthy than the beginning. I am becoming (even without those fluffy exercises) more adept with my words. They flow out in a more polished form than they used to. It’s kind of cool.
Now, as I finish up, I am increasingly thinking forward to the revision process and wondering how on earth I am going to regulate the beauty level, the detail level, the succinctness level. They are very different from front to back. I still need to inject the whole thing full of more beauty, more gorgeous, but it will be a challenge to inject heavily in the beginning and lighter in the end. I do believe it will be an interesting process trying to even things out across the board into a stable, cohesive piece, rather than the work of an easily diagnosed multiple personality.
If you need me, I’ll be thrashing through exercise one with gritted teeth,