The late poet Mary Oliver once said “The idea must drive the words. When the words drive the idea, it’s all floss and gloss, elaboration, air bubbles, dross, pomp, frump, strumpeting.”
When I think of words driving absent ideas, when I think of dishonesty and pretence, politicians come to mind. Not all politicians are dishonest but there are times when those in power conceal information from the media and, by extension, us. Everything a politician says is scrutinised by the media because it’s the media’s job in a free country to hold those who govern us accountable (although no newspaper is without political bias) so politicians take care not to say anything that might jeopardise their careers. Instead we get the party lines we can all see through and any credibility they had goes out the window.
We like people to mean what they say and say what they mean.
In their work George Orwell and William Zinsser encourage us to choose short words over long words because short words tend to be Anglo-Saxon and clear while long words tend to be Latin and unclear. Zinsser says of Latin words that “In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in -ion- like implementation […] or that end in -ent- like development and fulfilment. Those nouns express a vague concept or an abstract idea, a specific action we can picture – somebody doing something.” But is clarity the only reason short words are preferable over the long?
Joe Moran writes in First You Write a Sentence that “lots of short words in a sentence fattens the vowel sounds and cuts down on schwa. Schwa is that little indistinct uh sound in unstressed syllables – such as the a in above or sofa. Schwa is the most common sound in English, although you barely hear it, because it doesn’t shape the mouth.”
If, like a poet, you care for the sounds of your sentences, for the “sonic force” of your sentences as Moran put it, choose shorter words and cut the schwa.
Writer’s block. That dreaded phrase. When it came time this past week for me to choose the topic for the next post I felt hesitant and uncertain. My last post ‘Marginalia’ got seven likes, my highest so far, which is a relative success (not that I’m counting) but about a day or two after posting it the block set in.
In Draft No.4: On The Writing ProcessJohn McPhee says “I think it’s totally rational for a writer, no matter how much experience he has, to go right down in confidence to almost zero when you sit down to start something. Why not? Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.” Bear in mind this guy won the Pulitzer Prize.
Is there such a thing as writer’s block? Yes, but it’s not what you think. It’s no coincidence I felt blocked right after a relative success because now, it seems, there’s something at stake: my reputation. Seven likes on a blog post hardly makes a reputation but my Ego makes no such distinctions. Praise is praise and by god we’re not going to do anything to tarnish it. That’s when the thought of writing badly comes into the picture.
The thing about writing badly is I can only write bad when I’ve wrote good. Anything after a good piece of writing will be bad, or so it seems. But what makes good writing good? Is it really good or is my Ego so flattered by praise it can’t tell the difference?
Orwell wrote that sheer egoism was one of four motives for writing. E.B. White also wrote that “only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.” Sounds bad doesn’t it. But both writers only acknowledge that Ego is necessary to some degree for creative work. The issue is when it steps out of line and it will because there are no lines, so to speak, in my mind where I can cordon off my Ego. But that’s okay. I’ll keep writing.