Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Right Words in the Right Place

Current Reading: Myths of the North American Indians, by Lewis Spence

Inspirational Quote: "Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about." -- Benjamin Lee Whorf

I went to visit a friend of mine a few years ago. He was being visited by a friend of his, an Ojibwa man from around Lake Simcoe. The three of us sat around the fire in my friend's living room and sipped tea while discussing whatever entered our heads. The Ojibwa told a story about something that happened up on Lake Simcoe back in the seventies. The details, the story itself, isn't important. What is important, is that I sat there riveted. There was music in his voice, and rhythm. He took a simple story and turned it into something epic and mythic and resonant and the manner of his telling it is likely to stay with me for the rest of my life. The man was a storyteller of the highest calibre and I could have listened to him read all twenty volumes of the Annotated History of Accounting without nodding off even once.

Also a number of years ago, I read an article by Orson Scott Card in which he talked about language and story. As I understood his thesis, it was that story is more important, and the language is just the way the writer chooses to insert the story into the reader's mind. At the time, I couldn't see how I could not agree with him. Stories are timeless (and many are archetypal), but words are ephemeral and vary from teller to teller with the passage of time.

But I look at Shakespeare, who is endlessly quotable out of context because his words are so resonant. "To be or not to be..." "The quality of mercy is not strained..." "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers..." I look at the Bible and compare the King James version to the Good News version, and I shake my head at the loss of poetry like: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..." or "speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. for I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it."

Or, to offer a more recent example, from the graphic novel V for Vendetta: "Although the truncheon may be used in leiu of conversation, words will always retain their power. For words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth."

These are words, not stories, but they resonate. Stripped of their story, of their context, they still speak to us about faith and love and beauty and strength.

I don't write literary fiction. I write genre. As a consequence, I tend to place more emphasis on plot and pacing than on language. I use the words that seem to work best with greater regard for their function than for their poetry. I don't think it is a mistake, I think that for me it is a necessity, and yet I can't help but look with envy on those who choose their words with talent and flair that causes them to live fresh in the mind long after the book is closed and the story faded.


slcard said...

Funny, when I read some of your posts I see the suggestion of poetry. I always thought of you as tending more towards literary. Hmm...

Ulysses said...

If I tend in that direction, it is not by conscious choice. I love poetry, but I can't write it (as I've demonstrated numerous times). On my good days, I can manage (as Twain put it) "a good story well told," and I'm pleased with that.