Saturday, April 16, 2011

Connecting the Zots

Was sent an e-mail this week by a friend with whom I share the love of creation. She is also one of my few blogging friends that I actually know exists. I can testify that she has an analog version of herself to compliment her digital form. That is to say, we’ve met. We work together. Kat, the photographer (her digital self), can be found here: The analog version of Kat resides, for the moment, in Italy… gridare evviva! She’s finishing a two-year TDY with her family in Milan and finds time to share her passion for photography on the web. Love that.

In addition to being an inspired photo jockey, and cracker-jack engineer, Kat is a voracious reader (I was thrilled that she enjoyed an early version of Syntropy). As it happens, her current read is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet.

Kat graciously sent me an e-mail as a follow up to my blog post of last week and I was floored, purely and magnificently—floored. Have you ever read something that so clearly speaks to your opinion it’s as if someone has climbed inside your head, extracted the appropriate bits, and arranged them better than you could ever hope to? Jon Krakauer and John Irving have connected the dots in my mind on occasion… and Vonnegut has as well (which, to be honest, scares me a little).

In regards to choosing the right word, the dear departed Ms. L’Engle says thus…

“I have a profound conviction that it is most dangerous to tamper with the word. I've been asked why it's wrong to provide the author of a pleasure book, a non-textbook, with a controlled-vocabulary list. First of all, to give an author a list of words and tell him to write a book for children using no word that is not on the list strikes me as blasphemy. What would have happened to Beatrix Potter if she had written in the time of controlled vocabulary? Lettuce has a soporific effect on Peter Rabbit. "Come come, Beatrix, that word is beyond a child's vocabulary." "But it's the right word, it's the only possible word." "Nonsense. You can't use soporific because it's outside the child's reading capacity. You can say that lettuce made Peter feel sleepy."

I shudder.

To give a writer a controlled-vocabulary list is manipulating both writer and reader. It keeps the child within his present capacity, on the bland assumption that growth is even and orderly and rational, instead of something that happens in great unexpected leaps and bounds. It ties the author down and takes away his creative freedom, and completely ignores the fact that the good writer will always limit himself. The simplest word is almost always the right word. I am convinced that Beatrix Potter used "soporific" because it was, it really and truly was, the only right word for lettuce at that moment.”

I swooned as she shredded the notion of “even and orderly” growth. I now have the book at my bedside. Ms. L’Engle surrounds the passage with further eloquence, but I believe the words above, the words Kat chose to share with me, provide a good summary.
Two questions:
1) Do you have writers that connect dots in your head?
2) Any comments regarding Ms. L’Engle’s philosophy on word choice?

Munk’s Opening line…
Never underestimate the reasoning ability of a three-year-old human.
Munk's "Opening Line" is yours to keep, use it. Munk

Music this week... probably not for everyone... but definitely for me. The Pixies, Subbacultcha (you know, when you grope for Luna)


L.G.Smith said...

Bravo Ms. L'Engle.

Better for kids to stretch and grow than shrink from lack of challenge.

Tim Riley said...

I agree with the idea of challenging kids' vocabulary. If writers restrict themselves to words that kids can handle, it would be a very limited pool to draw from.

This reminds me of the discussion we had about your sentence last weekend. What did you decide about that sentence?

Mickey Burdick said...

I'm actually about 60k words into a novel, and just now starting to question its genre. I hadn't intended to, but I could absolutely see this book as YA novel in regard to story. I could easily switch it over in less than a week by editing out or re-writing some of the more severe and graphic content, but other than that, I don't think I'd have to change much at all in terms of vocabulary used. Part of it might be that I'm going mostly from a limited viewpoint of the protagonist, who is fourteen. Part of it might be that I don't have that good of a vocabulary to begin with (I stopped learning new things at fifteen. Why bother? I thought I knew it all then. Man, I hope I was right.)
Children have an uncanny ability to learn new things through context. There's little sense in editing out good words, as long as they're used correctly and in context.

Munk said...

@LG--I concur, high expectations plus great forgiveness. Imagine if Temple Grandin's mother took the lower road (another of my heroes).
@TR--Based on our discussion of last week, I plan to review the book again for word accuracy, but being that the narrator is of the omniscient bent, latitude will be granted. Oh, and Booker languishing in sweet aromas will remain... sensitive to his surroundings, Booker is.
@MB--If we only knew now, what we knew then.

Kat Sloma said...

I'm so glad that the words connected with you this way! Just wait until you get to the parts where she talks about whether you are writing for children or adults...

Whenever my 10-year-old son spouts out a work pronounced incorrectly, I just about guarantee he learned it in a book. It's fabulous, how his love of reading has stretched his vocabulary. My vote: "luxuriant fragrance" stays. Otherwise your writing may have a soporific effect on the readers.

Lydia K said...

In the end, you have to stay true to your writerly self. Everyone will give you opinions on what to keep and what to slash, but you're still the one holding the pen (or pushing the delete button).

Munk said...

@Kat - The book just keeps giving: "One cannot be humble and aware of oneself at the same time."
@LK - great advice

Michael Offutt said...

A "Wrinkle In Time" started with the words, "It was a dark and stormy night."