Using the right words, breaching the wall

Anyone who works with text day in and out is likely to devote more than a little time to pondering the nature of words and how they are selected. Some have been rendered meaningless by over- and misuse (“awesome”; “fascinating”), and others that remain viable in certain circumstances are endangered for the same reasons (“literal”; “tsunami”). The most gratifying to me are words that I believe deserve rehabilitation. Giving audience to words can also bring in issues of etymology or idiomatic usage, but simply mulling over the word itself—its appearance, its variety, how much it shows off or plays the wallflower—is its own reward. Once that pastime takes hold, it ushers in all sorts of interesting ways to approach writing and editing.

For several years, I wrote poems. Not often. Not well. But considering my inactivity in that realm over the past three-plus decades, it’s now a marvel to me. In particular, I’m aghast at the intrusive assumptions I let put a stop to it: a sense that I was not “entitled” to construct these word puzzles; that I was being presumptuous in the extreme to think I had any right to make use of words in ways that pleased me and communicated something I hadn’t known I wanted to say.

But there was another deterrent, probably contributed by my subconscious, which understood it was the easier to acknowledge than the previous two. Somehow I got the idea that “good writing”—poetry in particular, but prose, too—required a kind of certainty and clarity about word selection and placement that I could never possess. This image of a poem being constructed, much like a well-wrought wall, continually sounded in my head. It dictated that each word was like a stone or brick, and I was the mason tasked with placing it in mortar just so.

An unfortunate image, to be sure, for I had no illusion that, had I put my hand to masonry, it would result in anything more than a messy, unreliable waste of materials serving a single purpose: obstacle. But I had it in mind that poems would be my masonry, which I would erect with rigorous attention to detail: a word for everything and every word irrevocably in its place.

This metaphorical idée fixe went so far as to dictate metre, and I manipulated each word, forcing it into place to the beat of the mason’s shuck-chunk-clack-clink:

  • Shuck: the jab of the trowel into wet cement = determination of which word to use
  • Chunk: slapping that mortar onto the settled brick beneath = honing the bed of words as preparation for introduction of the new one
  • Clack: slamming the brick with pinpoint precision into the waiting mortar = forcing the chosen word into its new-made setting
  • Clink: tapping the new-laid brick with the trowel handle to set it = making sure the word stays put.

You can imagine how difficult it was when my head was filled with a rhythmic, unrelenting shuck-chunk-clack-clink. And, all it took was missing one shuck to throw off the entire process. There is a word that belongs there, but since it did not come to me with the shuck, I can’t have been meant to persist with this poem. Better stop.

Looking back, I’m amazed I ever completed any of them, but sometimes, when I allowed myself simply to fall in step, sticking in whatever shuck/word came to me as long as it had the right number of syllables and, on a really good day, the stress that permitted the final clink.

Roman masonry, brick and mortar wall

Roman wall at Ostia Antica, near Rome, 2008. © Brian Hotchkiss

And now? 35-some years later?

Although poetry is something I love to read, I have not attempted to write it since. I’m much more involved with prose, both its writing and editing. I enjoy playing with the words, letting them tell me where they belong. Then, once every word is in its place, I get to step back, survey the site, view how some words are just where they belong, some belong overall but in a different place, and still others, which either stumbled into the composition accidentally or stormed in like bullies, must be shown the exit.

Choosing the right words has come to be less a game or puzzle or building exercise and more like paying intimate attention to something that is, in the best way, inevitable. If you are prepared to write the piece, whatever it may be, the words will arise, often seemingly on their own. That still doesn’t mean they all belong there, and as a writer or editor you certainly will be called upon to make determinations about which to oust, but the worst thing you can do is force them into places and positions in which they clearly should not be.

I find great (and, some might say, perverse) pleasure in reading contemporary brick-wall writing—and sometimes it seems like that’s most of what’s published—then waiting to hear the crash. With opinion and provocation flitting about the internet faster than anybody can comprehend, the wait is seldom long. I’ve observed, in fact, that the neater the mortar, tighter the bricks, and more plumb the wall, the quicker and harder it falls and the more noise it makes doing so.

But lately it seems that a momentum is starting to build toward relinquishing that neat, tight, rectilinear certainty imposed on just about everything during the 1950s and 1960s, not to mention the fraudulent 1980s. Currently, some writing demonstrates a nascent move toward reckoning with just how vast our options are in just about everything we attempt. Having witnessed the tumbling of walls once deemed mighty and important, why devote effort to erecting new, but similar, bastions against the writing (and ideas) that frighten us?

Knowing they’re destined to fall apart, why waste time, energy, and materials on these tired structures, when we could be conjuring elegant solutions to the difficulties and trials so many of those old walls set up and held in place?

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