HUNTING, PECKING AND GATHERING
Don't you just love it when some sage says that authors choose their words carefully? Choose. As if the writer were looking at a tray of words laid out like chocolates in a box. Her fingers hover over the top layer. Which should it be—the truffle, the creamy caramel, the peanut cluster? Perhaps it's like that for some people, but it isn't true for me. When I'm hunting up the right word, I look down at my hands, inspecting the state of the nail on my left index finger or I scratch behind my ear or stare in an abstract kind of way at the unsharpened pencils and leaking pens standing in an old soup can on my desk. Then I close my eyes. If my eyes are closed, I can study the hole in the line of text where the right word, the exactly right word, should go. Sometimes a likely word pops into my head. Fillip, for example, made an appearance from my subconscious last week when I was trying to describe an unanticipated stroke of good fortune."A fillip of success came to me yesterday," I wrote. Nice, I thought.The lovely liquid double ll; the end-stopping percussive p. Then I stopped. Leaned back in my chair. Oh shit, I thought, will anyone know what fillip means? Do I know what it means? I Googled it. It means a"boost, a sudden spur to activity." Nope. Won't work in this context. Never mind, this is only a draft, I thought, I'll leave it in for now—especially since I can't think of a better word.
"Words, words, words" Hamlet says when that old fussbag Polonius asks him what he's reading. Hamlet's a pretty screwed up young man with mommy issues, but he's exceedingly smart about words. Knows just how to deploy them to flummox Polonius, make him wonder if this young man is or isn't mad. Hamlet loves words. He plays with them, tossing them up in the air like juggler's balls all throughout the play. And of course he's not one bit mad. But he does take refuge in word play. I know people like that. Good writers. Punsters. I once had a work colleague who punned as excessively as Hamlet does. He also wrote a brilliant, devilishly funny book called Invisible Driving about his bipolar disorder. My friend had a sign on his desk which read: Words at Play. I read it with extreme envy every time I went in to talk with him.
Words do not usually come easily to me. The exact word, that is. The precise word that will send a frisson up the spine of the reader. No. I am normally grubbing around in the dirty verge along the side of my mind's highway, where the right word lies like a brilliant green insect in the dust and gravel. This is exacerbated by the disconnect between my hands and the keyboard. The skin on my fingertips is thick, insensitive, because I have a skin anomaly called ichthyosis in which a mutant gene—yes, really—sends the wrong instructions to the outer layer of my skin, so it doesn't shed normally. So clumsy am I that I make constant mistakes in typing when I'm pecking along the keys. This is not helped by my somewhat old-fashioned education in high school—heavy on Caesar, Virgil, and obscure Catholic authors, mostly converts who left behind a string of mistresses the nuns knew nothing about—but entirely without instruction in practical things like what used to be called secretarial skills. I can't touch type, so I stumble along looking down at the keyboard when I'm actually composing. Then I look up to repair the countless typos I've inserted in what was meant to be deathless prose. All this is a constant distraction from word-hunting.
When, as is often the case, I fail, after repeated attempts, to find the right word, I have to put in a weaker word as a placemarker until that heavenly day when, editing, the absolutely right word will appear like an illumination. The most infuriating tangle with words happens when I am merrily typing along, nice sentences trekking their way across the page and when I stop to re-read, I find that I have used the same word twice or even three times, in the same sentence. How could this be? Couldn't I automatically think of an alternative when I was writing away? Last week, I was describing the process of making up a character."In my imagination," I said,"this imaginary fellow lived in a stone room in a medieval college designed by a particularly imaginative medieval mason." Oh shit. Three rings on the gong "imagination." When this happens, I add the dreaded word"FIX" in bold capitals right next to the sentence. That means I am going to leave the string of words exactly as they are for now, until such time as I come back to rewrite imbued with the brilliance that comes from having consulted a good Thesaurus. I do go back. I do re-write, again and again. Most of the time I come up with a decently different word, one that will fill the bill.
Fill the bill. Then there's the constant allure of the cliché. What every writing teacher tells you not to use. For me, merrily typing along to sketch out a scene in this memoir I've been writing about my youth at the University of Oxford, friendly clichés come to mind like quiet cats, surreptitiously rubbing their scents onto my prose when I don't even know they are there. This is a longish book, much longer than anything I've attempted before. Writing the early chapters, I felt like I was looking down a railroad track which stretches into a distant vanishing point. So many pages to fill. So many days of my wildly immature youth to remember and write about. I plunged in, using basic chronology as the backbone of the book. All my attention has been bent on remembering, shaping the story, fleshing out the people I knew so long ago. Chugging along this track for the first few drafts, I saw clichés springing into my prose like lovely yellow weeds blown from the edges of the rails. I let them pollinate themselves in my story, only too grateful for words on the page until I could get back to a more granular re-write.
It's when I'm lying in bed in the early morning, before I have to recognize anyone else's existence that my best fixes come to me—the truly right word which I can substitute for a cliché gone dead or the wrong word still pointing its thorns up in the otherwise smooth lawn of my prose. Half asleep, my cheek rubbing against the soft pillowcase with nary a keyboard in sight—that's when the apt word slips into my head. I lean over, fumble for the paper shards which are normally on my bedside table and write it down. If there's no scrap paper, I tear off a sheet from the back of the book I was reading the night before, feel around for the stub of pencil and get it on paper before it's irretrievably slipped out of my mind and gone on its way to a more fluid writer.
I am not good with words. Surely I should be ashamed to admit this. It's like a painter who can't mix colors or a techie who dislikes codes. Some people, like Hamlet, love words for their sounds alone, for the way they slip trippingly on the tongue. I find them obstinate, insufferably illusive, as tough to the hand as drying putty. Now and then, however, when I am writing something unimportant or are on my tenth draft, or are doing the laundry, a whole row of delicious words will line up obediently in their sentence like chocolates in a just-opened box.