I found this in the prefatory text of today’s A Word A Day from Wordsmith.org.
Short story writer Guy de Maupassant once wrote, "Whatever you want to say, there is only one noun to express it, one verb to animate it and one adjective to qualify it." As a master of the short story, Maupassant knew something about finding the right word.
While a word has many synonyms, each synonym has its own shade of meaning. A good writer picks just the right shade to paint a picture with words.
Well, that’s true. That’s what we do. Well, it’s what you do, you good writers. The rest of us stare at the sheet of paper until drops of blood extrude from our foreheads, just trying to imagine the vast array of possibilities. By some accounts, English has over a million words.
The truth is that everyone consults the color palate of words, but writers take it more seriously and pursue it as an art. (Or in the case of business and technical writing, a profession.) There is a poet in every man, just like everyone makes music, even if it’s singing in the shower. We’re not all Beethoven, but we’re somebody.
When my nephew was a baby and learning to talk, he would see a telephone and say tonebach. It was the perfect word. But it’s weird that he chose a sound that was closer to telephone than simply phone, since we rarely use the older, larger word anymore. And he used tonebach for everything from a wall phone to a desk phone to the smallest cell phone. How did he know? Because babies are geniuses, that’s how. Words are an exploration for them.
Writing is always an exploration, whether it’s discovering the hidden lives of characters or the perfect way to say you owe me money, pay up.
“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Oh, that’s right. And there are several reasons. Among them is the fact that it is our art, so we can’t stop until we get it as close to perfection as possible, and the last drop of sanity forces us to abandon it and move on. It’s never simply good enough.
There’s the search for something to write about, and that’s usually hard. Though I admit that sometimes for this blog, I just paste in a quote I find interesting, then see where it leads. That’s what I’m doing now. And isn’t that how inspiration works? Didn’t Van Gogh see a field of wheat and follow it into his mind?
Writing isn’t often fun and it isn’t always done for fun. And that’s an extreme over-generalization. But it has some validity, at least for me when I’m wearing my hat of poet and literary writer. It’s all about practice, just like mastering a musical instrument. And It’s about digging for common groundwater, buried streams that run between our lives. All too frequently, the subterranean shores on which they meet are points of pain and grief. Such feelings are common in the lives of human beings.
When William Faulkner – my ultimate, all-time favorite writer – accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature, he said:
I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work–a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.
Then there’s the solitude, the need to find free hours, and the fact that the people around you don’t appreciate that very much. You go off by yourself for long swaths of time, and come back with very little to show for it. Especially compared to someone whose art is The Well-Tempered Clavier or the well-turned chair.
Well, it’s nobody’s fault but our own, after all. We could’ve made chairs, or birdhouses. Or some nice paintings of mountains, rocky coastline or dogs and cats. (Though people might have more room for books in their lives than for chairs and paintings.) We choose to string words together, finding the right ones and the right order for them, and we’re probably stuck with that choice. It’s a calling too easily accepted, but borne with some difficulty.
There was a strong sense of the sacred in my task. She should be borne from her old bed to her place of rest in one fluid motion, as of a bird in flight. Still I wanted to lay her down so badly, just for a minute to shake out my arms and stretch my back. No. All I have to do is this step, then that step. One after another, the next right thing. Like words in their order, or how you tie a knot. Step by step until I get it done. It’s my burden to bear and mine alone. I should be grateful for the privilege. Not every man has half a day to spend on death, let alone kindness.
— Kyle Kimberlin, Charlie’s Crossing, work in process.