28 June 2005

Writing about words about writing


This is my favourite dictionary. My infuriating eye for detail compels me to tell you it weighs in at sixteen pounds and has 450,000 definitions. If it isn’t in here, it hasn’t been coined. Sometimes the words tumble over each other in their excitement to get out, at others they must be coaxed gently...

Writing scares me. I fear the blank page and the blinking cursor so I am forever noting interesting potential titles and preparing subject matter. A tall glass of ice-cold Diet Coke, beaded with condensation sits at my side as I trawl my list. Music off to permit total concentration. If the family is in I wear tight elbow/forearm support against my dreaded RSI and type, if they’re out I plug in the mic and speak aloud and freely to the PC.

Ready, steady go...

Once I thought more words made better sense. Now I understand they only confuse. The clever trick is to make your point using the fewest words possible. I can’t banish adjectives and adverbs entirely from my page, so I try to choose them carefully. A noun improves with qualification but becomes muddy with an adjectival clause. A verb is perhaps not the right verb if it requires an adverb.

An image forms in my mind, part of a story I want to tell. I want to describe the view so the reader sees it too. I Imagine videotape rolling, describe exactly what I see, especially the trivial and keep to the plot. Painting a picture with words that approach the subject from an unusual angle can make it spring off the page in colour.

I select a recent photograph (from the five or six I take every day) relevant to my thoughts. Next I define the limits of my subject. Now I plot a beginning, a middle and an end. Finally I am ready to write. The shorter the better, a reader will grow bored after a thousand words. I dream up enough phrases to attract attention but hold some back. Over-egg the cake, and that rich diet makes everyone bilious. The best results come quickly and without effort. No good hurrying the words, the harder you chase them around your head the deeper they hide.

Kill the PC, slip on my trainers and take a walk. I pick up my MP3 player on the way out, press in the ear-buds and scroll through four hundred albums. ‘Kaiser Chiefs’ will do today. Listen hard to the lyrics (don’t forget I need a lyric quote for my blog too.) Today’s words will emerge later, when I have stopped thinking so hard and the coast is clear.

Middle-aged forgetfulness often robs me of my best, most startling thoughts. Now I know I must snatch them from the space between eyes and screen and commit them to Word© before they are lost forever. Spell-check, proof read etc... I want beautiful prose, deep thinking and iron-clad, copper-bottomed accuracy. Mostly I fall short of my aspirations. I pour another impossibly tall glass of ice-cold Diet Coke.

I am a true Virgo, demanding perfection in myself as well as others. I keep writing and refuse to admit I am human...

"I know, I feel it in my bones,
I'm sick, I'm tired of staying in control."
Kaiser Chiefs - Everyday I Love You Less and Less

24 comments:

Dionysius said...

What is it that makes a successful writer?
A writer generally sets out to transfer a notion, picture, concept, plot from his/her mind into the mind of a reader. This can never be accomplished with perfect fidelity for many reasons. There is non-determinism in every part of the process. The words and language do not always convey the writer’s intent. Ambiguities are injected because of imprecise definitions of the words themselves. The constructs of the phrases and sentences further lead to diverse interpretations. Every reader will draw a slightly different result from the description. Our ability to understand language is a function of a myriad variables such as our cultural background, our education, our upbringing. Can anybody, and especially you PV, help me answer my own question? There may be no answer since changing time and circumstance and entities beyond our control inject a temporal component into the mix. I have seen books (The Diary of Anne Frank, for example) go in and out of vogue with the passage of time. In any case I like to analyze the topic just in case there is a silver bullet that I am missing out on.

Kimberly said...

I coudn't of said it much better then dionysius, she chose perfect words.......I do understand how hard it is to write. I too am afraid when writing my book that I will come upon a blank. I usually get my inspirations whilst at work and have to grab that pen and a piece of paper, scribble the words quick before they are lost in the great unknown abyss.

I really like how you have thrown in the part of .......

Listen hard to the lyrics (don’t forget I need a lyric quote for my blog too.)

This gave me an insight of the world that I think all of us bloggers know, and that is always thinking of whats next for our next post. I thought about this the other day, you just happened to speak out for the rest of us,thank you :D

That is a beautiful book,however, how can it be the NEW third edition? Wouldn't the 1st be 'new'?..lol

Perfect Virgo said...

Dionysius - well put indeed. The difficulty of making oneself properly understood is frustrating. As you say, each of us has his own fixed idea of a word's meaning, probably subtly different from the author's.

I take comfort that the blogging world has signposts and markers which allow like-minded thinkers to congregate. We discount blogs that appear tangential to our own thoughts and read elsewhere. When we discover a thinker on or very close to our own wavelength we pin them down in our favourites list. We read his or her links and that way distil a circle of friends who understand what the heck we are saying!

Kimberly - yes I am always looking out for inspiration for the next piece, music helps me a lot. Sometimes the lyric is the foundation for my writing, other times it's the photo. But I always hunt out a lyric, always!

As for the dictionary, I was seduced by its completeness, then I had to figure out how to carry it home. Good point! How can third be new? New implies first! Never mind it is chock full of amazing words - I'm off to learn a few more...

Cocaine Jesus said...

That blank page is a big scare warden isn't it? I am still trying to maintain five sites (and failing badly). Somedays I can write for England and others . . .nothing.

I too love books of words. Having grown up with some ugly characters whose first choice of weapon is either their fist or a baseball bat it is true knowledge and wisdom to see the absolute power of well honed and well chosen words.

Glad to see you are into the Kaiser Chiefs. I love 'em and have been going on about them on my Utility Fish site for yonks.

Sorry to say as much as I would love a Harley (the same as ridden by Billy Connoly) I know nothing about mechanics and therefore didn't leave any comments on your previous post as any comments I could have left would have been nonsensical.

I love this site and you would never have guessed from the easy and laid back feel that you PV fear the blank page as everything is so readable and entertaining.

Perfect Virgo said...

CJ - Yes I love words and I can tell from your own writing that you do too. Everything is available from stinging barbs to gentle platitudes.

Thank you for your extremely kind words about my humble efforts. I sometimes think of the swan, all grace and poise above the surface but underneath frantic paddling and steering! Swan? Ugly duckling perhaps...

Great new bands this year, eh? Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, Paddingtons, Subways - keeps me young-ish! I noticed your reference to Kaiser Chiefs a while ago. Did you catch them at Glastonbury on BBC3? Ricky was interviewed a couple of times and he virtually stole the show from the crass presenters - a natural entertainer!

I'm off to ride my new bike...

JJ said...

Your words never cease to amaze me. They are always beautiful and your thoughts well put together. Me = dang I just sit down and write whatever - it's therapy for me. I enjoy reading your blog tremendously. So whatever concept you use continue to do so because I would miss your writings. Being a Virgo myself bro I am so hard on myself sometimes it scares me. I've learned not to expect it from others. See, look at me writing now. Just writing whatever comes to mind. Love you bro!
Peace,
JJ

Perfect Virgo said...

JJ - we Virgos can be our own harshest critics, I know. I am obsessed with detail, lists, organisation and accuracy so you can imagine I sit here polishing my words forever before punching that "Publish" button.

Thank you for taking the time to read my words. I read you daily too and I admire how you set out your thoughts in a straight forward honest way. Love you too sis!

Kimberly said...

For some of us the writing seems to be a release and it is not always the easiest task, but as you said we all seem to work in a circle of friends, all whom understand what each other is trying to say and depict. And also I think looking at what everyone else has written I believe it gives us the rest of the inspiration that we might need to keep going, new ideas etc...

RuKsaK said...

A dictionary is a false drug for the cancer that is writing.

RuKsaK said...

Okay, okay - I'm a pretentious twat. I guess what I mean is, that while I love a good dictionary, perhaps more than the next man, I never pick one up when writing - but that's a personal choice and maybe I should try it out.

Sorry for the ugly metaphor I spilt in the previous comment.

Perfect Virgo said...

Kimberly - very true. We are attracted to like-thinking souls and I for one draw inspiration from those I read. The blog world is good like that, it allows us to choose a circle, one which we would be unlikely to assemble in real life.

Ruk - its no good as a tool for writing I agree, you have to be already familiar with the words before you can use them. I like this big dictionary just to check precise meanings and its sort of comforting to have all those words in one book.

The book I truly loathe is the Thesaurus, the cheat's almanac. Surely half the fun is trying to dredge up all those synonyms and antonyms from memory.

Pretentious? Toi?!

Dionysius said...

I have always loved words and my particular fetish is etymology – the origins and roots whence words come. Etymologies are not definitions; they are explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago. I studied both Latin and Greek for 5 years (12 thru 17) during my Secondary school days in a boarding school run by Carmelite monks in County Cork in my native Ireland. I have been in the West Coast of the US for thirty years and even though my profession is Engineering I have always found my classical education to be of immense help to me in that I rarely am forced to use a dictionary and I believe I can get a more embedded and true meaning of a term that is often in common use. Engineers are definitely not lexicographers or wordsmiths. For those who are interested here are examples of what might be found in an etymological dictionary:

etymology
1398, from Gk. etymologia, from etymon "true sense" (neut. of etymos "true," related to eteos "true") + logos "word." In classical times, of meanings; later, of histories. Latinized by Cicero as veriloquium.


philanthropy
1608, from L.L. philanthropia, from Gk. philanthropia "humanity, benevolence," from philanthropos (adj.) "loving mankind," from phil- "loving" + anthropos "mankind." Originally in L.L. form; modern spelling attested from 1623. Philanthropist is first recorded 1730.

umbrella
1609, first attested in Donne's letters, from It. ombrello, from L.L. umbrella, altered (by influence of umbra) from L. umbella "sunshade, parasol," dim. of umbra "shade, shadow" (see umbrage). A sunshade in the Mediterranean, a shelter from the rain in England; in late 17c. usage, usually as an Oriental or African symbol of dignity. Said to have been used by women in England from c.1700; the first rain-umbrella carried by a man there was traditionally c.1760, by Jonas Hathaway, noted traveler and philanthropist. Fig. sense of "authority, unifying quality" (usually in a phrase such as under the umbrella of) is recorded from 1948.

I hope I still have an audience but believe me this is worthwhile IMHO.

Perfect Virgo said...

Dionysius - let me do my dictionary a little more justice - 2662 pages of which the first 119 are introductory giving abreviations, conventions and instructions on use! Luckily the etymology of the entries is included although not to a specialist extent.

I studied English, French and German at school in the 1970s in both langusge and literature, also Latin to a lesser degree. I too love the roots and derivations that are as clear as day when you know the clues.

I work in banking with figures, rates, percentages and ratios so I find words a vital source of pleasure and escape...

Dionysius said...

Back to motorcycles and Harley-Davidson in particular. The seasoned Harley guys over here dislike Fuel Injection and liquid cooling. This sounds crazy. Air cooling is sub par and the forward cylinder runs cooler than the rear in a V because it is the first to receive ram air. Anybody who would chose a carb over FI needs to see a shrink. Finally Harley now has a real "hi-tech" or should I say contemporary tech bike in the V-Rod. I love its wheels. There is a Harley afficionado I know and meet about twice a year over here. He is about 60. Viet vet. He sleeps in his garage and has a sign outside 'Hog Heaven'. It is amazing. I just cannot sell this dude on the virtues of FI and Liquid cooling. I find it interesting to say the least.

Perfect Virgo said...

Dionysius - I had a Japanese air-cooled 750 triple in the 70s. Balancing 3 carburettors was an ongoing task! FI makes life easier, cold starting is never a problem, stalling is nearly impossible, fuel economy is better etc...

Liquid cooling is more efficient, engine noise is damped plus you get a sweet little radiator up front!

Harley owners have a similar reputation to owners of British bikes in the UK. They shun modern engineering in preference to oil leaks, unreliable electrics and sloppy handling. If that is what they mean by keeping biking real then I'd rather walk!

For me the Japanese have made biking pure. Repair manuals are made redundant by their seemingly bulletproof motors and routine maintenance is a doddle.

Grant Edmunds said...

hahaha thats cool but mayb u rite 2 mutch

luv grant

ps i ws wndrin if all riters stil take drugs

Jen said...

I am up to my elbows in words these days and have never been happier. But I wanted to stop in and say hello cause I miss you!

Perfect Virgo said...

Jen - lovely to see your friendly face around here. I can tell you've been busy but I miss you like crazy...

The Flea said...

Thanks Virgo. I really enjoyed this post. I'm sure a lot of us "writers" and "bloggers" can empathise what what you're saying here.

I agree with both yourself and Dyonysius (no wonder he chose that name). Words are fascinating stuff. But, I also agree with RuKsak. I try not to consult a dictionary when I write, let alone a thesaurus. As far as I am concerned, writing is first and foremost: communication. And if you find yourself using professor-like words you only limit your audience.

P.S. You should buy the Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Deals with the origins of words and common phrases. Always an interesting read.

Perfect Virgo said...

Flea - nice juicy comments as ever - I love that you guys take the trouble to respond so fully. The thesaurus is a cheat's manual, I agree. The big dic just helps me nail down as precise a definition as is available.

How very, very true about "professorial" laguage. I someimes re-read my posts and think "Is that English too basic and monosyllabic?" Then I decide "No, well-chosen simple words can be highly effective.

Thanks for the recommendation, I'm a sucker for books containing words about words!!

finnegan said...

"The big dic just helps me nail down as precise a definition as is available."

Yessiree. It also allows one to know when not to include a "k" in the spelling.

With that abbreviated form in mind, I realised your hidden meaning in this response to Kimberly:
"As for the dictionary, I was seduced by its completeness, then I had to figure out how to carry it home.

All this made me pull mine out for a look-see. All I found was the translation for "mushroom"
And since that didn't enlighten me, I thought I'd get a better tip from a title like "All's Well That Ends Well" by the great Shakespearchucker himself.

This is what I found.

[Enter Clown, and PAROLLES, following]

Parolles. Good Monsieur Lavache, give my Lord Lafeu this letter: I have ere now, sir, been better known to you, when I have held familiarity with fresher clothes; but I am now, sir, muddied in fortune's mood, and smell somewhat strong of her strong displeasure.
Clown.Truly, fortune's displeasure is but sluttish, if it smell so strongly as thou speakest of: I will henceforth eat no fish of fortune's buttering.
Prithee, allow the wind.
Parolles. Nay, you need not to stop your nose, sir; I spake but by a metaphor.
Clown. Indeed, sir, if your metaphor stink, I will stop my nose; or against any man's metaphor. Prithee, get thee further.

Provisional meaning indeed.

Perfect Virgo said...

Finnegan - oh very nicely quoted sir! How the meaning of words shifts subtley across the centuries. Bill Shakesby would have applied the word 'stink' to a sweet, fresh scent.

Here's another opposite - today the kids say 'wicked' when they mean 'good.'

The metaphor is marvellous fun, if we coin one ourself we have to be so careful not to convey precisely the opposite of our meaning!

I love your secret interpretation of my 'dic' reference! Next to heavy-handed sarcasm, my favourite humour is anything word related. Puns, Anagrams, palindromes, Spoonerisms and doubles entendres pepper my everyday spoken language! No wonder people claim I talk in riddles...

As ever, a comment and a half my good man!

GEL said...

This post jumped out at me while reading your archives. There are more levels than this brief (for me) comment, so watch your inbox in 3006 for the rest of my thoughts on this post.

Firstly, I recognized that dic immediately and knew I'd found another lover of words. My dic collection could induce "envy" in any man, even though I'm a woman. I enjoy its variety from the traditional to the more obscure like The Slang of Sin, medical dictionaries...and so much more.

Like you, I rarely use a thesaurus for myself although I ingested the dictionary with glee ever since a young child. Other versions than the Blue Websters at home were among my top library books. As an adult who battles bouts of insomnia, doctors suggested I read the dictionary to lull me to sleep. ROFLMFAO!!! Following THAT advice guarantees that I'm awake.

I have thesauruses out of necessity for teaching and I admit to using one now and then out of frustration when the word I want to use is on the tip of my tongue, but refuses to slide seamlessly onto my paper(or screen). I usually write on paper though with a certain pen. Writing is kinesthetic, visual, and auditory. It's as if...well I will post elsewhere about that process.

Your quote here:" Next to heavy-handed sarcasm, my favourite humour is anything word related. Puns, Anagrams, palindromes, Spoonerisms and doubles entendres pepper my everyday spoken language! No wonder people claim I talk in riddles..."- Yes, Yes, YES!!!!! You don't talk in riddles. You're speech is "simply" to salty or spicey for them, like a multi-layered cake, but they hear only the obvious or do not know how to discern the ingredients on their own. Double entendre is my middle name...

Superbly interesting post despite the writing on my walls. I thought you knew to ONLY write in magenta or teal crayon colour- no smudges of course.

Perfect Virgo said...

SilvermOOn - I am envious of your feminine dic collection. No wonder you can't sleep at night with all those choice words to peruse!

I agree on the thesaurus front, I enjoy the mental task of sifting and selecting the right word - "le mot juste." But heck we are all human so a dip into Roget is forgivable.

I knew a true writer would see this post and comment. Magenta and teal have deep resonance of course.