Roger Cohen wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about Israel a couple of weeks ago. He began by quoting a novelist. The quote is perhaps the best commentary I’ve seen on the process of writing. He said:
“(Writing) is like reconstructing the whole of Paris from Lego bricks. It’s about three-quarters-of-a-million small decisions. It’s not about who will live and who will die and who will go to bed with whom. Those are the easy ones. It’s about choosing adjectives and adverbs and punctuation. These are molecular decisions that you have to take and nobody will appreciate, for the same reason that nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false. So you have to work very hard in order for your readers not to note a single false note. That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions.”
The English vocabulary is arguably the largest and richest of all languages. So, why are there so many concepts with no word at all?
In particular, why is there no word for grown up people who are in a relationship that includes both friendship and sex, but neither children nor marriage? ‘Friend’ is too broad. ‘Special friend’ is too cute. ‘Girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend’ is both inaccurate and insulting. ‘Mistress’ for woman … we won’t go there. The best one I’ve run into is my cousin Gamble’s term, ‘pelvic affiliate’, but that doesn’t really capture friendship.
I suspect that social inertia is involved … after all, such a relationship wouldn’t have been much discussed even thirty years ago. I’m tempted to make a new word up, since my story happens in 2050. I really need something to describe the relationship between my two protagonists, Joe Mayfield and Louise (Weezy) Napolitani. He’s 40, and she’s 36. The relationship built during my first novel, and, as Weezy thinks at one point, recalling a song lyric, “If it ain’t love, it ain’t bad.”
PS: This issue was neatly described by Professor Anne Curzan in a Teaching Company course called The Secret Life of Words. If you are a word mechanic, aka Writer, you will be made more capable by this wonderful dissection and explication of the enormous, colorful bag of tools we all use.
I’m finding that the process of writing sometimes gets in the way of the goal of writing, which is storytelling.
Language may be the most important gift from the genetic dance that formed us. It allows us to remember things and share ideas beyond tribe and lifetime. But writing is a johnny-come-lately at maybe 6,000 years old or so, and writing seems to want to squash the tempo out of language.
I have to admit a little bit of a grudge against you, Alphabet. After all, you hijacked our stories. Oh, Alpha, I know you didn’t mean to, and I know it was important to count heads of cattle and amphorae of wine so we could get on with the business of civilization. But, Alphabet, you made us too often ignore the music of language. Before you came along, I suspect that there were no stories without music. Even if unaccompanied by instrument or choir, spoken words always have music. The oral tradition values that sound and rhythm. You can still get whiffs of it today, but modern media often override sound and rhythm with sound bites and volume. It’s hard to compress art into a Tweet.
I spent a lot of my career writing for business. Precise, accurate, dry writing. Facts strung together by logic in pursuit of matters legal and financial, didactic and persuasive. I enjoyed it … there is a challenge to making something clear in as few words as possible. Writing the novel has been different and harder. Tone and rhythm are take effort to maintain. I test out my words by speaking them. I do it to find their natural melody. I have a pretty strong suspicion that nobody’s going to read something with no beat and no flow.