It’s about the language, as Stephen King says in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000). I heartily agree. The craft of writing is certainly about the language – the way in which a few simple words can create understandings or misunderstandings, as the case may be.
Whenever I sit and listen to my granddaughter Emma talk, I become totally fascinated with what kids say and how they use language. There’s a pretty good reason Art Linkletter had a hit TV show on his hands years and years ago.
Emma, who is almost four, is a master at cracking me up with her expressive use of language. She threw three toys up in the air the other day and as they fell to the floor all around her, she asked me, “Did I do it, Grandma? Did I juggle?”
“Well, I think it’s still going to take a bit of practice, sweetie.”
“Daddy can juggle . . . apparently”, she told me.
The way she tagged the word apparently on the end with just the perfect tone to suggest he had said he could but she wasn’t sold – I just burst out laughing. I asked, “Have you ever seen him do it?” and she told me, “Yes – he juggled for me yesterday.”
Hmmm – apparently her Dad can juggle and he did in fact juggle for her. She’s got the expressive quality down to a tee but perhaps the comprehension needs a bit of work.
Language can also evoke powerful images, sights, smells, and atmosphere. Consider this handful of words – He was an enormously fat man who smelled of cats and loneliness. With any luck I have succeeded, with these few words, in plunging you into a total physical and emotional reaction. In a split second the language can put us in touch with the fact that we all know this man – we can actually see him, we can picture what he’s wearing. With a tad of imagination we can smell him. We can even visualize what his house might look like.
Think about those few words. They can take a writer just about anywhere. This character’s life of cats and loneliness is because he spent his best years caring for a dying parent or a crippled sibling. Or maybe it’s not as melodramatic as all that. Maybe it’s just the grindingly sad reality of some people’s lives – spinning out over time along a certain solitary trajectory and no one and nothing came along to change things. He didn’t want to end up enormously fat, alone, smelling like cats. It just sort of snuck up on him. Or maybe being fat and never bathing so he smells like a cat box is his one way of flipping the whole frigging world the finger and he gets a total charge out of every single face pulled in disgust that he encounters. Perhaps he’s not fat at all – maybe the giver of the description is suspect. Maybe he or she is paranoid about weight and has an overly sensitive nose. Maybe this suspect narrator is afraid of ending up alone.
This character could take us into the genre of horror – he has a hidden basement room that is sound-proofed – the story may start with his backyard being dug up by a forensic team. He can take us into the realm of the tragic as we explore just how lonely and stark his life has turned out to be. Or we could have him walk out of his house and somehow have a near death experience that totally changes his life – he gets rid of all the cats, becomes the guy who loses 150 pounds by eating one Subway sandwich a day. He runs into the prom queen from his old high school, gets married and lives happily ever-after. Or perhaps his whole lonely and tragic life might suddenly find meaning as he throws himself under a metro train to save a baby whose stroller has rolled onto the tracks. The possibilities are legion.
It’s all about the words, the language. Give it try – spin a yarn for this man. Or maybe spend some time really listening to how a child makes use of language. I’m betting you’ll end up laughing and appreciating language in a whole new way.
Bloggers note – thanks Matt for being a Dad who can juggle and for overhearing such an excellent little snippet of language in your daily travels.