Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Word To Your Mother

One of the reasons I love creative writing is the continual process of revision. There is such freedom in knowing that you can begin badly. It's the great literary do-over. If I sit down to write and I can't seem to get started, I just give myself permission to write complete drivel. Often, after a few poorly written paragraphs are enough to get my juices flowing, and I start cranking out real words and passable sentences. Even if the result isn't pure poetry, at least it's something I can edit.

Unfortunately, life is not a creative writing project. A few rare exceptions aside, we don't get a lot of mulligans. Words that sounded okay in my head exit my mouth in a jumbled mess of embarrassment. I can't think and re-think every word before I say it. At the rate I edit, it would take days to say anything. Consequently, I spend a lot of time with my foot wedged firmly in my mouth.

Words are arguably the most powerful thing on earth, yet we throw them around with careless abandon. We don't take care about words' connotations, their etymology. A misplaced comma or pause can completely alter the meaning of a sentence. As Americans, we abuse our language to such a degree that it can become unrecognizable. I read a short story this week that actually said that a character came in out of the cold to "dethaw." So, they came in out of the cold to do the opposite of thaw? Freeze? HUH? Don't even get me started on the whole I-could-care-less/I-couldn't-care-less debate.

There are still those who care about words, however. (Some might say they care too much.) I had creative non-fiction workshop tonight, and I must say that those people care about word choice. Where else could you spend ten minutes discussing someone's use of the word counterintuitively? (I didn't make that up. It really happened.) Sure I wanted to induce vomitting in order to get out of the room, but you do have to admire their committment to the written word.

Outside the realm of creative writing nerds (yes, I'm including myself in that grouping), though, I have almost given up hope. The other night I watched the beginning of the film Idiocracy. In it, two people awake from cryogenic stasis to find themselves in a future world where the English language has been reduced to a muddled mix of slang, grunts, and grammatical abominations. Didn't seem too far off to me.

The upside to taking time to consider your words is that you are forced to take time to consider your words. As I said before, words are powerful. Even a well-meaning joke or comment can cut deeply if the hearer misunderstands. Slang can be misinterpreted. Look to the always clever and ever elegant Jane Austen as your conversational paragon. The ladies and gentlemen in her stories take such care with their words; even their jibes are wrapped in silk scarves of slippery language. How long must it have taken Austen to create and edit those exchanges? What a polite and urbane world she created.

So tomorrow when the goofy starts working its way up my throat toward my mouth, I'm going to stop, take a deep breath, and channel my inner Elizabeth Bennet. (Does that make Steve Mr. Darcy? Hmm.) With my verbal skills, I'll probably be something closer to Mr. Collins. Maybe I could just write everyone a nice letter.


  1. that like...going strictly by the book? How did your class finally settle that one? Just curious.

  2. They didn't. It drug on indefinitely. Professor Howie finally stepped in suggested we move on. I've never met a group who can discuss minutiae for so long. YIKES!