The members of my writing critique group comment on my manuscript. That’s what they’re there for: to offer suggestions, to help steer me in the right direction and to give me their gut reaction to my work. Most of the time, I heed their sage advice. This last time, however, while I recognized they were giving me a safer alternative, I didn’t want to accept their prompting.
You see, I’d become attached to the words in question.
Five words in my story were encircled for being rather obscure and therefore a distraction. Which, a couple of them said, made it harder for the reader to delve into the story per se. I understood the need to capture and keep the attention of the reader, but I believed the words belonged where placed and conveyed exactly what I wanted to say.
Specifically, the words in question were palaver, garrulity, torpor, perfunctory and procure. My writing cohorts offered, as replacements, the more commonplace and therefore, more readily absorbed speech, talkativeness, sleepiness or idleness, casual or careless, and the unpretentious get. No, there’s nothing wrong with the words they suggested. But I believed my usage was not incorrect either. So, we arrived an impasse.
I must admit, rather sheepishly, I pondered after the meeting if I’d been too hasty or obstinate in my insistence.
Still mulling on this subject a few days later, I entered my car, put the key in the ignition and heard a man say, “So writing well is the same thing as thinking well. Let me repeat that. Writing well is the same thing as thinking well. That is how we express our thoughts and our feelings.”
“Oh my God, are you talking to me? It’s true, so true,” I shouted. I’d left my radio tuned to the local NPR station on when I parked the car. Turning up the volume, I drove slowly as if to extend the spaces between his words. I didn’t know who I was listening to, but his iridescent words resonated.
With me, thinking and reflection are as vital a part of the creative process as the actual writing. I’ll wander around with the characters, the setting, and the words in my head for quite a while before I type out the first word on my computer. Even after I’ve given the thoughts alphabetic dimension, the ideas continue to percolate and people my everyday life: in the shower, when I sleep, when I cook, when I read.
The corollary, then, is this—the words in a story are chosen and well-thought-out, not arbitrary.
Soon enough, I found out I was listening to best selling author Dr. Charles Johnson, the 1990 National Book Award winner for Middle Passage, on the Diane Rehm show. His new book is called The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling.
“When I read something, I want to be ambushed by its beauty, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction I want to be ambushed by its beauty. I want the writer to have such a command over the English tongue that he or she teaches me how to use English better. That’s what I want in the things I read.”*
Exactly! There is luminescence in the right words.
I’ve always loved words. I am a reader, and have been one far longer than I’ve been a writer. When I read, I do look up words I don’t know. It excites me to add one more gem to my collection. Often, I garner the meaning of a word from the context, just like I did as a child.
The writer and the reader can work together to keep our language pulsing and robust. I also believe most people know more words than they realize. And yes, I’d love for my reader to be fully engaged in my story, be viscerally connected to my characters. For that to happen, the right word makes all the difference.
Thank you Dr. Charles Johnson for sharing your thoughts on writing.
Not that he’s ever going to read anything I write, but I intend to keep his wise words embedded in my work and in my heart.
*National Public Radio, The Diane Rehm Show, December 6, 2016.