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Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Frozen Pole in Brain-Land

Words are at a premium around here. When I've had a particularly grueling writing session, where characters fall apart, fall in love or fall over a cliff, my tongue feels like it's attached to a frozen pole in brain-land. Even my cat's name escapes me. Why is that? Is there a finite number of words available to us in a twenty-four hour span? Granted, women bankroll more in a day than men, but at some point, I simply run out. Every three or four words, my train of thought sizzles apart.

"You're tired," you say. "Take a day off. Tomorrow the well will be full."

I can't be sure. At a project's end, the mind is parched.

The thought of not finding word perfection when I need it is disconcerting. When I re-read a scene back at page 49 and the words weave a perfect tapestry, when I can't even remember writing it, I fear those words floated to the well's surface and what's left beneath at page 300 is muck and the acrid taste of a writer who's grown weary.

At moments like these, the only thing I know is to pick up a novel. Something amazing and revered and of the highest caliber, and gorge myself on the words. A literary feast of nouns and verbs I haven't laid eyes on in awhile. Old friends I hope will become close enough to sneak into my own story in a moment I least suspect. They can be simple and occupy the Neighborhood of Make-Believe from thirty years ago. They can be as dense and mysterious as a NY Times Crossword, but they must be there for me when I need them.

As I write this, I'm reaching for the American Heritage Dictionary. A quick academic fix. The book falls open, at letter I: incite and incoherent. One I've used in my current novel, one is the perfect description for every utterance from my lips today. Does this mean these two formidable words are lost to me? Spent away because they've come and gone? Are words just currency we try to hoard but overspend when we've used more than our share on the page?

Words are the inception for writers. So why, at at a book's end, do we feel we've exhausted every last one? Abused some to the point they'll never return? Convinced the perfect ones they couldn't possibly rise to the surface like the ones who came before?

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - 'tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." ~ Mark Twain

Someone else adores this quote like I do and has started a website devoted to helping young writers.

Here are some other thoughts about words:

"A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day."
~Emily Dickinson

"A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought, and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used."~Oliver Wendell Holmes

"For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word." ~Catherine Drinker Bowen

"If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams--the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn." ~Robert Southey

9 comments:

Todd Wheeler said...

It is good to step back from the page sometimes.

I like the random page from the dictionary, a kind of I Ching for writers.

Marilyn Brant said...

It's funny in an interesting way that opening up a book or dictionary to a random page thing... I've always done that--with dictionaries or encyclopedias, but also with favorite novels. Todd's I Ching analogy made me smile because I do think of doing that as the fast track to getting some kind of inspirational Gift of Wisdom :-).

Melanie Atkins said...

I love those quotes. Great blog, L.A.!!

L.A. Mitchell said...

Todd and Marilyn, I wonder if all writers do this. I've opened to random dictionary pages as far back as I can remember.

Mel, I'm not one to abuse quotes by posting them everywhere, but on the day I wrote this, they resonated with me.

Charles Gramlich said...

I gorge myself constantly on words, but at times I still can't find the ones I want. I often find that in rereading the perfect word will suggest itself and I'll be fine. I've learned not to worry to much over the precise word for that reason during the first draft.

Maureen McGowan said...

If this post is what comes out of your frozen pole.. then it's not that frozen.

Still, I do know what you mean. Some days the words come easily. Some days they don't. It's scary.

Sandra Ferguson said...

Hit page 302 today -- the real 302 (meaning I'll keep the 301 in front of it) and my mind seemed as dried as yours.

I stand in my kitchen and need to point to things to get assistance because the names for those items has completely escaped my collective thought.

I didn't head for the dictionary, but my backporch -- yeah! for a little coller weather -- and found myself contemplating verbs that start with 'e'. Escape, esculate, emasculate, energize, electrify, emote . . . want to know how many of those words are in my 302 pages? I doubt a single one. And why is that? Why when I'm struggling to paint pictures on page does my paintbrush run dry?

Figure it out for me, will you? The words to reason it out have left me.

Here's to page 303 and better writing.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Charles, I do tend to over-think. We hear time and time again that the first word to mind is most likely the best. But what happens when our mind runs in a groove like an old 45 and we pick the same tired ones again and again?

Maureen, I wish we could harness those prefect days of productivity.

Sandra, YES! I'm so relieved it's not just me. I have an "e" word for you. Empathy :)

Barbara Martin said...

I liked the brief quotes on words.

And I agree with Charles, that when writing if the phrase is not quite right the correct wording will come to you if you allow it to do so naturally. I had a title picked out for the my first novel, yet it wasn't quite right. Some time later, out of the blue, a new title popped up into my consciousness like a bright bulb of glowing energy. It was perfect.