Is delicious. I like mine with juicy ripe tomatoes, succulent cucumbers, and just a bit of finely chopped onion. But not lettuce. Greek vinaigrette, a crumble of feta, and heaven. On the other hand, you might like lots of shredded iceberg lettuce as a vehicle for ranch dressing, bacon, and cheese. Still a salad.
Still a story. Words do matter, but how much do they matter? I find myself fighting with word choice while writing from time to time. When the story is flowing I will sometimes get stuck on a word, ‘argh’ and move on, because I need to write the scene. Other times I find myself lingering and obsessing over the right word to use here.
I was thinking about this as I prepare to go over the latest manuscript with final edits. Some of what I will be doing is finessing my words. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it. I mostly want the pacing to be solid, the continuity smooth, and the character to have a logical growth arc with setbacks for realism. I’m not writing poetry, here, just a story.
And yet there are times a well-crafted sentence can be a thing of beauty. I’m not personally a fan of novels that read like poetry, each sentence sculpted like one of those radishes carved into a rose. Those tend to be hard to follow the story, and you lose sight of the plot in this massive vegetal maze of intricate cuts and curls. Look up vegetable carving sometime… who would eat that?
Who wants to read that? Sure, sometimes I want to soak in the amazing versatility of the English language. I’ve been working on my Spanish, recently, and marveling at how much of the vocabulary I can deduce from knowing that an English word also came from that root. words like largo for long throw me a bit – I want to read that as large, which it isn’t. The ability of this language of ours to create a mental image with a few well-placed words is dumbfounding.
Most of the time, though, I am reading not to revel in the words, but the words are tools to convey as quickly and succinctly as possible the content in front of me. You can tell a deep, emotional story without using language I have to look up in my dictionary app with my phone while reading on my tablet. I do love to learn a new word, but sometimes I just want to lose myself in the story. And when I am reading non-fiction, I’d rather not have the emotional tugging and pulling. I’ve been reading a book for research, on the history of Siberia, and it’s taking me forever to get through it, because the author is spending time building a word picture that is painful to read. It’s not the writing, it’s the world through her eyes, the pervasive alcoholism and hopelessness and impoverishment of spirit… I have to walk away from it before the light fades and let some sun back into my soul from time to time.
For me, when I’m writing, I am not thinking about the level I’m writing on. I was amused, when one of my professors discovered I wrote, and asked to read one of my books, to discover that three full-tenure professors had discussed, and eventually looked up, a word I’d used. I hadn’t thought twice about it – anacephalic seemed quite acceptable as an insult when paired with goon. But it’s not the first time that I’ve had eyebrows raised over the vocabulary I use. My young adult books are, in theory, too difficult a reading level. I refused then and now, to dumb down my words. I learned much of this vocabulary in the first place by reading.
My daughter came home from school the other day, and was talking to me about a failed vocabulary test. Her teacher, it seems, had neglected to supply her with a word bank to study (she was a new transfer and it slipped his mind). She took the test, failed it, and was disappointed in herself. I looked at her and asked “you know what to do about this?” Yes, I need to read more.
Reading, voraciously, has many benefits in my humble opinion. From bibliotherapy to vocabulary, words jumbled together, combed into tidiness, and arranged in pleasing designs are marvelous things. Just like salads. The combinations are nearly infinite. In practical terms, unlimited ways to write stories, tell them effectively, and create mental images exist. And they are all delicious. Even if you don’t like lettuce.