Welcome and thanks to my last guest of the challenge, Cathy Dreyer, the award-winning story writer who blogs about all things writing at writeanovelin10minutesflat. This post is a dedication to the tools of the writer's trade - words.
Words matter. This was never more clear to me than when I was trying to learn Spanish. About 15 years ago, I went to Guatemala, to its beautiful second city, Antigua, and took lessons. I’ve always felt I had an affinity for learning languages. So after just a few days I was striding around town flashing my new words like wads of dollars.
‘I’m feeling a little bit ill today,’ I said to my landlord.
He looked a bit puzzled for a few seconds, then nodded and looked sympathetic. A few days later, I realised I’d told him I was a small illness.
When two friends joined me for a while, they were gratifyingly impressed with my new skills. In restaurants I would order their food and drink very much to the lingo born.
‘They fear your water may upset their stomachs,’ I explained to one waiter. ‘They do not want any ice in their Coca-Cola.’
That puzzled look again. And again, the realisation, a few days later, that I’d asked the poor man not to put ice-cream in the fizzy drinks.
Being on a Creative Writing course (at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education) I’ve learnt to consider not just the precise meanings of words, but also their sound and how that relates to meaning and storytelling. The poet Andrew Philip has a wonderful extended essay on rhyme on his website which goes into illuminating and erudite detail about how writers can use sounds.
Using linguistics, he examines the positioning of tongue and lips and the passage of air in making sounds which are words. I have found his stuff invaluable in considering my own work. I am not just talking about poetry. When I started to think about literature, about what it is, I quickly ran up against the arguments that it is what we say it is; that its definition simply reflects current cultural and political power; that it is not possible to define. I think that’s probably true. Cleverer, more educated people say it’s true anyway.
I’m not that interested in academic definitions. I like writing which ‘gets me there’. That’s my short-hand for text that I find enjoyable, text which delivers some kind of sensual experience. (For anyone who is interested the novelist and critic James Wood discusses this in his book How Fiction Works which I almost know off by heart.)
My internal short-hand for literature is writing that comes from playing with words, from people who enjoy playing with words, who like putting them in interesting sound or page or narrative patterns, even if only at a very subtle level. It seems to me the more games and patterns and general embellishing there is on a text, the more admired it is for its literary qualities. I am really not talking about anything esoteric or overly academic. Anyone who uses alliteration is playing with words, surely. On this definition, AA Milne counts.
In her 1982 bestseller, Brother of the More Famous Jack, Barbara Trapido clearly uses sound to reinforce meaning, to get readers there, as I would have it. Early on in the novel, Trapido writes about a heavily pregnant character. The text becomes full of the soft, not to say gestational, ‘g’ so stretchily redolent of the late stages of pregnancy, including the words ‘bulge’ (twice), ‘engages’, ‘hugely’, ‘strong’, ‘pyjama’, and ‘Burne-Jones’.
This is a novel which definitely got me there and still does when I regularly re-read it. Writers also think about the derivation of words. Some writers, notably Seamus Heaney, have made an effort to use words from our Anglo-Saxon past which tend to be more gutteral and back-of-throat, compared with the Latinate front-of-mouth language of the Norman Conquest.
There’s a suggestion that Anglo-Saxon is more authentic, less elitist and closer to the way language originally formed, possibly with words which sounded like what they were. Say the word ‘dig’, for example, and your tongue digs into the bit of your mouth before your teeth and then expels the air your mouth is holding like a spadeful of earth thrown out of the way.
Heaney’s poem Bone Dreams has been taken to be explicitly about this. He sets his wonderful phrase ‘scop’s twang’ against ‘Elizabethan devices, Norman canopies.’ Say the words out loud, see what you think. If you’re interested in further reading then I found Stephen Dobbyns’ next word, better word, the craft of writing poetry (Palgrave Macmillan) rewarding.
Meanwhile back in Guatelama I had all this and more to learn. What happened when I made the common mistake of telling a group of young jungle guides that I was ‘on heat’, when I was just feeling Guatemala’s punishing sun, is a story for another day.