Inventing Words (and Worlds)
Bill Long 2/8/12
The Calling of a Writer
One of my first experiences in law school, as a 44 year-old with many books under my belt and more than dozen years teaching in higher education, was to write a paper for my legal research and writing class. The assignment related to identifying the elements of a particular crime. I duly did the assignment, adding literary flourishes and historical references here and there to make the essay sing, and I handed it in. I was surprised to get it back with red markings all over it, telling me to excise all this extraneous material which, to me, added spice to the literary meal I had just prepared. In solemn tones, in my paper conference, the professor told me that I had not given him a good species of legal writing. I had two instant reactions: (1) I would learn to produce "good legal writing" so that I could get the top legal job around; and (2) I would consider the advice of my teacher relatively useless for my understanding of what constituted a good writer. In a sense, then, I would, become like a hooker or highly paid phone sex operator; I would learn the "language" that would "turn on" the world that I wanted to pay me a lot, but in my heart of hearts I knew I was giving it its language only because they paid me well for it. In my mind, legal writing and language often had the virtue of relative clarity, but it added ponderosity, unnecessary verbiage, (often) sham intellectuality and, frankly, poor literary style. I said to myself, "no one in his/her right mind would sit down and read a legal opinion unless it was required." Though it may solve litigants' problems, legal writing failed, in my judgment, in living up to an attractive allure for readers who wanted sensual and intellectual stimulation.
So, what is good writing, then? In order to answer that question, I have immersed myself recently in reading/rereading many great English-language short stories. I love them not only because they get right to the point (they have to!), but because you can be mentally and emotionally stimulated in fifteen minutes. Though some of the work doesn't resonate much with me any more (such as Kentuckian Jesse Stuart's "Split Cherry Tree" or Edgar Allen Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"), I notice in all their works two characteristics which are powerful: (1) they write of what they know; and (2) they feel free to expand on the dictionary.
(1) The first might seem obvious, but should be emphasized, if only to encourage younger writers to focus first on what they know or what they easily can learn from what they already know. Jesse Stuart writes of rural folk in Kentucky, where he spent his life; Langston Hughes' work is imbued with the deep rhythms and spirituality of the Black experience in America in the early 20th century; James Thurber's most famous short story ("Walter Mitty") speaks of the dull life of a Connecticut middle-class couple, and the only city mentioned was about 10 miles from where he lived. It takes a good story years to gestate, and it gestates best in a warm atmosphere, an atmosphere that continues to grow on you even as you unconsciously drink from it.
Sometimes, however, you need to "study" in order to become a good writer. The novelist Leon Uris of the last generation was one of the best "studiers" before he wrote his many novels. Do your study with diligence, taking materials that you can even "improve" by your retelling of them. One of the marks of Shakespeare's genius was his ability to tell the story better and more powerfully than his sources. It doesn't mean he knew more; he just knew better how to put what both he and his source knew in better words.
(2) Look at the dictionary as a rough draft of the language. In fact, I think you should look at the dictionary in two ways: (a) as a treasure trove of mostly hidden treasure--of words no longer used or of meanings that once were used but are no longer, words that you can resurrect through your writing; and (b) as an encouragement for you to "stretch" what is already there to accomodate natural extensions of the language. To use an image from law--law is always interested in two things: definining the current legal understanding of a problem and trying to figure out if a proposed solution to the problem really is through the "extension" of law. Law grows to accommodate new realities; it "extends" in various areas. Look at the dictionary, then, as a template of suggestions, yearning for clever extension of meaning.
It goes without saying, which is why I will mention it, that in order for you to become a great writer you have to be a great friend of dictionaries--and perhaps in several languages (more on that in another essay). Don't satisfy yourself with "Collegiate" dictionaries; go for the big historical and present-day dicitionaries. Let them teach you.
I participate intermittently in a group of fellow adult spellers, and in one recent email a friend had mentioned his love of the word "apophasis," which is an ancient rhetorical device in which one pretends to pass over a subject by mentioning it. Scott's brief mention of that word led me to the following rumination, one in which I not only begin with the dictionary but then go far beyond it:
"Your mention of apophasis, the rhetorical device of claiming to pass over something while mentioning it, recalls a synonym to that word---I don't have the (Collegiate) dictionary handy so you would have to check to see if it is there.
Paralipsis (also spelled paraleipsis) means, literally to "leave something along side"--it is a classic rhetorical device of pretended omission. Normally you signal this device by saying 'not to mention' or
'I say nothing of,' and then, of course, you have mentioned it. The jury has heard the allegedly suppressed evidence. Oops.
Use of the Greek preposition 'para,' or 'next to/along side' also has its theological and neologistical (if I can coin a neologism on its root word!) impact. For example, in Christian theology the 'paraclete' is the 'one who comes along side' to help believers...the Holy Spirit. That word is derived from 'para' and 'kaleo' (to call), though the 'call' is in the passive participle form. The neologism from all this might be a 'parakletic' or 'paracletic' person, one who is particularly skillful at 'coming along side' others to ally fears, teach skillfully, comfort or in general make life's rough road a little smoother.
Thanks for allowing the verbal wandering of a verbal peripatecian (would you accept that in a dictionary you would write?)..."
Start reading. Start learning. Start writing.