Working with a cover artist, Part 1 Lonely Writer Tip of the Day #1Have you ever worked with a cover artist? It is like any business relationship, or it should be. Respect your cover artist, and they will help you. Don’t, and beware! Get an idea of what you want before you start The last…
Two years ago, I wrote ten things that I’d like to say to young writers, and I find that a lot of young writers — WEE TINY BABIES WITH HOPE GLINTING IN THEIR DEWDROP EYES — email me. They want to be writers but they don’t know if they can or if they should. And…
When it was just me and a tree, I knew it all
St. George and the Dragon Day – something I like to celebrate, as it reminds me of those far recesses of childhood when I began to learn the world was SO BIG, and even bigger when you thought about all history. And in my head I had such a sure, vivid, timeless yet evolving image of all the stages of history in all the places I knew of. What does an “absent-minded” daydreaming six year old who has never left Michigan know? A whole lot! Enough to fill a universe. That’s the nature of the brain.
I suppose these vast conceptions of places like medieval England or colonial America or Neanderthal Europe were informed by folk tale books my mom read, TV and school–but I’ve been around the world and dangerously over-educated in the 4+ decades since and these “forms” (in the Platonic sense) in my mind’s eye have not much changed. This feels very much like a collective unconscious. Somewhere there is and always will be an England of rolling green hills where a maid tends her sheep across the river from a village fair outside a Gothic cathedral, and archers roam the forest and knights in armor ride out from a castle with crenellated parapets. Somewhere there will be a dragon and a St. George to do battle with it.
What the other realm has to do with inspiration
These places are real in the way everything in a dream feels so much more present and tangible and real than being awake: in your dreams, the smallest thing can be infused with a sense of the greatest symbolism, and what happens next always has the feel of momentous inevitability. This is how good writing works: you set up a world of believable vastness and palpable intimacy, where events or imagery sustain multiple meanings, and the plot develops logically and naturally from the introductory matrix.
When I write I don’t feel like I’m creating a new place, rather, I’m trying to re-capture one that already exists–has always existed–in my mind, which is the same as to say it already exists in the “out-there” where all possible places and settings have always and will always exist. Inspiration is just getting to a point where I can remember it. I’m just tapping into something outside of myself. I’m being reminded by a “Muse”.
But the Muse is elusive! I can only actually write while I’m awake, with all the meaning-less distractions and inelegant minutiae of everyday life crowding in. How can I possible get past all that to a mental state where I can touch that other realm of inspiration? Most of the time it’s as hard as remembering your dreams. You forget just as soon as you remember a piece of one.
And what memory has to do with inspiration
My dad is nearly 82 years old. Since starting up the whole genealogy thing a few years back, I’ve made a point of asking questions about my parents’ childhoods, and I get very frustrated at how little he remembers. Is he holding back? Or can he honestly not remember a day out of his entire fourth grade, or one of the dresses his mom always wore? And yet, since I turned 50, a part of me has started to believe it. I’ve reached an age where I have to face the fact that maybe not remembering that certainty of childhood has less to do with simply not thinking about it lately and more to do with the fact that there are memories that may well be gone forever. You start to get pretty desperate to tap into that world-eternal you had all around you as a child.
I still play this one game sometimes while trying to fall asleep: I scrape and think really hard and try to come up with one early memory from childhood that I haven’t thought about almost since it happened. Maybe it will keep my brain and memory in shape. Maybe I’ll actually learn something about myself. It’s a game because I don’t always win; in fact, it’s quite rare that I un-earth a genuine long-buried gem and the corresponding feeling of supreme satisfaction. For just a moment, I know all the secrets of the universe yet again.
Is education inspiration?
I’ve spent a life voraciously chasing after that complete education, the level of knowing it seems like everyone else must have, a basic understanding of all history and myth, of geography, of the “greatest” writers and artists and musicians, the times of the greatest break-throughs for science and mathematics, how a cell works and how a galaxy is born. Reading every word Shakespeare ever wrote (happy birthday) and doing a dissertation on his histories. I think I always thought that’s how someone achieves enlightenment–er, peace of mind–er, being a real human being.
But apparently my Muse is the same she’s always been: someone who puts me in touch with a conception of the world I’ve always had. Or maybe I’ve just set up a false dichotomy: I suppose even as a child I had to overcome staggering inanity and mundanity. Probably trying to find school-clothes that weren’t laughable and doing homework that was a painful exercise in futility were just as frustrating to my higher self then as these stacks of unsorted receipts and boxes of unsifted cat litter are today. There were bullies then who teased me about my overbite and flood pants and my uncool mind-absences, and there are bullies today who torment me over my awkward bookishness and unfulfilled potential and my uncool absent-mindedness.
Daydreams and distractions, still
I think now that reaching my Muse is more of the same creative selective-attention I learned as a child. For sheer-survival I learned to tune out–as soon as they were gone–the unpleasantness of nose-bleeds on the school bus and that girl who always said out loud how messy my hair was or how I acted like a boy. In my head all that mattered were the woods I played in and the books I read. Today I sit in my condo and listen past the distant road traffic and screaming kids and that jack-ass running his leaf-blower at dinnertime and sometimes I really do manage to hear only the birds outside. I play with my cat and some string and sometimes I really do find myself as single-minded and in the moment as she is.
Perhaps it’s the pernicious TLE déja-vu seizures I have that have me obsessing on capturing something lost from childhood: in the moment of the seizure it sure feels as powerfully atmospheric as a dream. Or perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve been around the world and still I’m right back where I started: a daydreamer in a book under a tree, desperate to prove one way or another that what you all thought were “mind-absences” were, in all ways amazing and worthwhile, me being very much present someplace after all.
Writing as art. . .as writing. It’s never far from my mind, the magical characters we use, and how many more we could be using. Give your eyes a feast every once in awhile!
blæc, adj: black, dark, swarthy. (“black”)
Book of Hours, Bruges (Belgium), c. 1480. Morgan Library, MS M.493, folios 18v and 19r. The Black Hours, one of a very few manuscripts on vellum that is dyed black. The illustration shows Whitsun, or Pentecost, the occasion of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Christ, as described in Acts 2:1–31. Source: Morgan Library.
No protagonist can rise to become a hero by avoidance. Any plot that simply involves a character trying to stay away from something is only partway there.
A coupla hundred years ago, our good ol’ mate Darwin thought up this totally radical idea called evolution. This had two noticeable results: the church got their knickers in a twist, and it revolutionised our understanding – of biology, humanity, pretty much EVERYTHING-y. Since then, all manner of disciplines have co-opted the evolution concept: stellar evolution! Directed […]
or, Etymology Won’t Teach You About Beetles
“Its very variety, subtlety, and utterly irrational, idiomatic complexity makes it possible to say things in English which simply cannot be said in any other language.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
It’s apparently the thing to make fun of English on Facebook: memes abound. Today I saw a quote (attributed to David Burge): “Yes, English can be weird. It can be understood through tough thorough thought, though.” My buddy sent me a set of proper English teacher mugs with helpful reminders like, “They’re there for their afternoon tea” and “I’m going to add two sugars, too.”
(Along about second grade I prided myself on coming up with the grammatically correct “That ‘that’ that that girl used was incorrect.” Four ‘that’s! Count them. WHOA! I just did one better: “I always said that that ‘that’ that that girl used was incorrect”. Guess that’s why I went to grad school for English, huh? Top that.)
Then everyone on FB will always comment something about English having no rules and English being the hardest language to learn as a result. . .Ha, ha, I laugh along with them, but part of me wants to proclaim, “NO! EVERYTHING IN ENGLISH HAPPENS FOR A REASON, AND IT’S FASCINATING!”
Whoa, sorry I shouted just there; that’s about three decades of pent-up enthusiasm for one of my favorite of all subjects: the History of the English Language. No other language in the world developed quite like ours, with a unique political history allowing a variety of languages in a variety of time periods each to dump a whole new vocabulary into the mix. And though for most this results in laughable pronunciations and spellings, the far more important and brilliant fact about English gets lost: we have more word choices than any other language!
He went up the stairs.
He mounted the stairs.
He ascended the stairs.
. . .And we have three different guys who need to get up the stairs, right? The first is a plumber, the second is a cheap romance-novel hero, the third is a bishop or something.
The plumber reached the second floor through English’s original origins as a Germanic language (to go, to wend). Dirk Kirkwood benefited from the French influence on the language following the Norman Conquest. His Eminence’s usual mode of transportation derives from the Latin influences our writers in English actively imported during the Renaissance in order to “beautify” our language for better-sounding poetry.
Three different sentences (which would usually translate into only the same sentence in another language) which technically do mean the exact same thing in English as well–and yet, they don’t. In English-teacher speak, the three sentences have the same DENOTATION but they don’t have the same CONNOTATION.
And we writers are always all about connotation: we’re always seeking to say things in a new way, yet we still want it to be the correct way, and we really really want to achieve that subtlety of expression that Heinlein celebrates and which “word-inventors” or word-importers like Shakespeare worked so hard to make possible. It’s so much easier to express ourselves with so many words to pick from–and that’s before you even employ colorful idioms and cultural allusions. Thank St. Francis de Sales for the Thesaurus.
Hold your jets.
All right, I admit it, while my vocabulary is astoundingly prodigious, I AM on the wrong side of 50 and more often than not these days I’m too slow to come up with the question on Jeopardy! –even though I know that I know it, I just can’t think of the word. So on my laptop, where I do most of my writing, the Firefox homepage is a thesaurus.
A thesaurus is wonderful for people like me who already know the words, who already understand the exquisitely subtle connotations of a given word, we just need reminding. The same tool in the hands of a beginning writer becomes as laughable as the English language is to an internet memester.
“If Facebook has taught us anything, it’s that a lot of you, are not quite ready for a Spelling Bee.” –OH, NO THEY DIDN’T! Someone actually made a meme that complained about spelling at the exact same time s/he made the egregious grammatical error of separating the subject from the verb with a glaring comma. Hah!
So, yes, imagine the creative writing results someone like this would produce if you handed him/her a thesaurus. I could always spot the student who had gone out and bought a Roget paperback a mile off:
“We need to be fastidious not to under-estimate the perilous effects of global warming.” –Fine, I’ll be sure to bring along my hand sanitizer and St. George.
So where’s the good news? First, anyone reading an obscure blog like mine purporting to address “matters of peripheral interest to writers” isn’t the kind of person to fall into the leaf-covered Saurus-trap. You’re aware that denotation is not connotation.
Second, back up to where I (and also some famous writers, you can look them up) proclaimed English the best language on the planet for exquisite precision of expression. I’d like to add another assertion, the implications of which are even far more glorious: those of you who have grown up with a love of words and have grown up with English have had your very brains shaped by vocabulary to perceive reality with exacting complexity. Well, potentially. One always hopes.
It’s like the old paradigm presented in the saying that Eskimos have 50 different words for snow (which, incidentally, is not an urban myth… 2013 update). If your mind can comprehend fifty different kinds of snow and ice condition, then you literally do see your environment differently than someone who only has a couple words at play during winter.
Etymology will teach you about beetles and scarabs and coleopterans. . .
One of the best ways to tap into your English-speaking cultural advantage is to have a good look at the history of that language, how and when the words evolved, which in turn will give you greater understanding of why those various connotations exist. It’s true that most people wouldn’t tell you their plumber ascended the stairs while at the same time describing the Pope on TV going up some steps for his inauguration ceremony. Writers, however, can give a lot more depth as well as precision to their writing by studying word origins.
Navigating the requirements of graduate school can be treacherous.
Negotiating the requisites of graduate school can be tricky.
…This one’s easy to explore without having to consult your American Heritage dictionary. (Which is, btw, the best dictionary for Americans interested in etymology; I won mine in a 5th grade spelling bee and the rest is history.)
“Treacherous” has connotations of betrayal, with its origin meaning “to cheat”, whereas the word navigation brings to mind a sailor managing unexpected obstacles on the sea. Both have the implications that a graduate student is met with much that is out of her control.
“Negotiating” instead sounds like a person who is at least on equal footing with the task at hand, with its implicit meaning “to conduct business” and a further overtone of something that is actively worked at, not passively achieved. Combine with that the seeming-synonym for treacherous of “tricky” and we have an additional sense that the student is empowered to act upon grad school just as well as grad school springs surprises on the student.
Two sentences, but only in the second does the student seem more powerful. I might add that a “requirement” is something issued by one entity to another, whereas a “requisite” is a static or neutral condition of need–but I’m probably just over-thinking it now.
The next time you find yourself torn between two “big” words, have a look at their etymologies–and you might just be surprised. Usually that alone is enough for you to decide. But along the way you’ll find yourself exploring the origin of another word, and yet another. . .Soon you’ll be reading and writing untold layers of meaning in every new choice of words.