I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. (…) Writers don’t need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing — a sunset or an old shoe — in absolute and simple amazement.
— Raymond Carver, “On Writing”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “hiding behind pretty words” and the paradigm of minimalism that informs so many well-meaning attempts to educate young writers. Encapsulated in the cliché “kill your darlings”, the challenge to overcome flowery writing appears to be a universal hurdle in the coming of age of any author-to-be.
Since I’m confined to my individual experience, I’m going to talk about what it’s like to write in a foreign language. My theory is that if you fall in love with a language you weren’t brought up with but educated into as it were, there’s even more of a risk to bury yourself in fancy words, because you’re less subject to the overarching conventions of that language. More specifically, you’re soaking up a big part of your vocabulary through decontextualized word units — i.e. the vocabulary section of your textbook. Even if you’re lucky enough to be given a sample sentence or phrase accompanying each word, you’re still forced to absorb one word at a time. Native speakers, on the other hand, learn the largest chunk of their vocabulary in context, so word combinations become automatically ingrained.
Even non-native speakers like me, who have a thrice-certified C2 level of English, can often be caught spouting out one of those telltale phrases that “just don’t sound right” to native ears. (There might even be one in that very sentence for all I know.) I believe that apart from the corrupting influence of our mother tongue, a lot of that has to do with a susceptibility to linguistic darlings. Some of these might just be words we’ve unconsciously picked up and have to overuse in order to incorporate them in our long-term active vocabulary. Some others — and in my experience there’s a significant overlap with the previous category — just strike us as poetic, so we take a liking to them.
Of course, the kinds of discourses you seek out in your books, TV shows, and other media feed your tendency to prefer one word or phrase over another. In my case this led to a real conundrum when I went to Canada for a year abroad. My school English had left me somewhat inept when it came to making conversation: my speaking register turned out to be more akin to an essay than a casual chat. No matter whether I found myself in the classroom or a board-game café, I couldn’t help sounding incredibly pretentious. This is not to say you could have written down what I was saying and gotten a perfect score on an essay examination; it means that I had somehow gotten into a habit of removing words that I liked from their context and inserting them into a new one where they didn’t fit. You know how people like to point out that they have several identities depending on whether they’re talking to an authority figure or a friend of theirs? That’s exactly what I was lacking. Since my English had been born in the classroom, it took me a while to dissociate myself from the niche identity I had acquired there.
But let’s get back to writing. I took a language practice course this past semester for which I had to write a theatrical review. When I received my submitted copy, there was only one criticism the teacher had noted down: my review, it turned out, was “a bit of a register-bender”. The first thought that sprang to mind then was, “Well, that’s also what most of my blog posts are, so fair point.” Needless to say, I was failing to see the bigger picture. That little piece of feedback amounted to something of a summation of my relationship to the English language for the past two years. I’ve been struggling to expand my linguistic identities and recontextualize my vocabulary, but to this day I still gravitate toward wordiness and an overly lyrical, formal, or downright archaic register. Because that’s the only way language can reach its full potential, right? Language is made up of words, so if you opt for a descriptively richer lexicon it’ll have a more profound stylistic effect, right?
The fundamental truth I was failing to see was this: subtlety doesn’t lie in the reader’s inference that the author consulted their mental thesaurus to compose a given sentence; it lies in how much they’re willing to reveal to the reader, and as a result, how much the words used are given free rein in the reader’s mind. But maybe I wasn’t that interested in subtlety to begin with.
At the bottom of it, what I was doing (and what I’m still coping with) is playing tricks on the reader — myself in particular. My paragraphs, although sincere at their core, wound up as some cheap magic show made up of awkwardly orchestrated tricks aiming to prove that the guy performing them was an actual magician, and not just some phony. Essentially, I was (and still am) longing to legitimize my status as a competent speaker of the English language.
Perhaps there is some underlying fallacy to the idea that a synonym, by which I mean a word that is used infrequently, contains a certain specificity, whereas a more common word is broader and devoid of the igniting qualities needed to engage the reader’s imagination. Raymond Carver completely subverts this logic — perhaps without meaning to — in his essay “On Writing”, where he concludes,
For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right, they can hit all the notes.
To this day, I have considerable difficulty talking about everyday objects and situations because I’ve simply been curating abstract thought in my use of English instead of dealing with the crude realities beneath it all. So while my English will sound reasonably apt if you ask me about the notion of authorial intent in online literary discourse, you’ll catch me stuttering when I try to describe my morning commute in any terms other than pleasant/unpleasant.
This is why my first forays into the field of short fiction mark a pretty substantial step outside of my comfort zone. Descriptive writing, zooming in on details — gaping at an old shoe if you will — doesn’t come naturally to me. But since I started writing fiction so late, I’m hyper-aware of where my darlings crop up, which is why I’ve made a point of aborting them (rather than keeping them around only to kill them at a later point — how cruel a metaphor is this anyway?!). I’ve adopted a philosophy that isn’t quite as constraining as the “keep it short and simple” motto I’ve come to envy in other writers. For now, I’m sticking to a “say it as it is” approach. We’ll see where that gets me.