If you missed it, last week I was interviewed (albeit briefly) by a fantastically smart chap calling himself Blimpy. It was a short,sharp interview with questions from readers of his blog and they were great questions (especially the Ernest Hemmingway: Fuck or Fight question which started me corpsing quite badly).
But one question tripped me up:
“My book is redolent of…”
Listen to the interview, you hear me stumble, unable to recalled what “redolent” means. Mock me if you like, but, yes, I had a genuine moment of verbal confusion where I was unable to recall the word. Because its not one I’d really use.
But it got me thinking about writers and vocabulary. People expect authors to have an almost limitless capacity for wordage. We should be awesome scrabble players. In spelling bees, we’d kick those kid’s arses with out knowledge of how to spell.
But the truth is, we are like any other human being, and we have gaps in our vocabulary.
I don’t think so. Because being an author isn’t about knowing the meaning of every word in the language, but knowing how to manipulate the words we do know in order to communicate. Now, I’m not saying that a writer shouldn’t be fascinated by language and constantly on the lookout for new words, but I am saying that the real focus of crafting a novel or short story or whatever is using whatever words are at your disposal in the best possible fashion.
I was thinking about punk bands the other day, how so many of them knew only a small amount of chords (the clichéd amount is of course three) and yet they were able to create a vast amount of songs from just those three chords. Because they used what they had. I’m not saying any writer could get away with only knowing three words, but the principle’s the same: you use what you have to hand and you use it well.
Writing isn’t about verbosity. Sure, it helps to know words and what they do, but its more important to be able to say what you have to say clearly and concisely. It helps to know how to get your sense across. And sometimes, when you want to achieve that, less is more.
I just started reading a book for possible review (Yes, I’m trying to get back to that) which required use to the Dictionary to understand a six word sentence. I had no sense of voice or rhythm from the book. All I knew about it was that the author had a larger vocabulary than me and wanted to flaunt it. Maybe he was influenced by Joyce (who at least had control over his words and a sense of literary rhythm) or maybe he just thought that all writers should show off their vocabulary at the expense of their reader’s concise understanding.
A lot of the time, people hear me talk about Elmore Leaonrd as one of the most perfect writers. This is because he gets his sense across cleanly, clearly and concisely. He writes (approximately) how people talk. And while I’m sure his vocabulary is extensive, the need to show it off isn’t there. Unless its necessary from a character perspective.
A writer may actually be the worst person to talk to about specific words. Our job isn’t to know language intimately, but rather to know how to manipulate it to our own ends.
At least that’s my excuse, and man, I’m sticking to it.