We were headed to dinner at a restaurant called simply, “The Buffet.” Not a buffet, but The Buffet.
I can’t criticize the cockiness of whoever named the restaurant. Any smorgasbord that boasts crab legs, quail, sushi, pizza, barbecue ribs, gelato, crepes, oysters on the half shell, made-to-order latkes, street tacos, and the requisite meatloaf and mashed potatoes deserves the honorific of that definite article, The.
It’s easy to get lost in most Vegas hotels, so Eric and I had ample opportunity to catch up on life.
He had just read my post “Be Hard to Offend,” and he mentioned a particular thought that resonated with him: “I’m talking about blowing minor misunderstandings out of proportion with a surplus of pride and shortage of wisdom; escalating otherwise innocuous situations.”
I thanked him and said it was funny that out of all of the sentences in the post, that one grabbed him. When I was writing that sentence, the first word that had come to mind was “dearth.” Who knows where I learned that. A Dickens novel? It’s a less common word, so I decided to use the word “shortage” instead.
“I don’t even know what dearth means,” Eric said with a laugh.
When we were in Jamaica, Eric surprised our guide with his knowledge of Jamaican slang. Then, as we were walking back to the cruise ship, he explained to me how ocean-going vessels use a special “sacrificial” layer of paint to protect the hull from salt. Later that week, Eric confessed his enduring and endearing obsession with The Sound of Music. He rattled off a ton of little-known facts about the film.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if Eric, of all people, did know the definition of “dearth.”
And this brings up the ongoing dilemma in which we writers often find ourselves:
Do we pick the words that we prefer or ones accessible to more people?
I’m not talking about dumbing down your writing. That is an oversimplification of this dilemma, not to mention an insult to the not-dumb people who happen to not know the meaning of this or that word.
Eric didn’t know the word “dearth,” but he is very smart. In fact, he could point to a feature of our cruise ship that was a complete mystery to me. Eric has one of those curious, sticky minds that effortlessly collects random facts and arcana.
Other people’s minds collect baseball trivia, economic models, or song lyrics. They remember birthdays, family histories, and what the weather was like on a specific day twenty years ago.
As for me, obscure words have always gotten snagged in my brain. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know myself.
- There was “yarak”—the prime state of hunting fitness for a hawk—that came from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.
- “Tintinnabulation” arrived during my sophomore year of high school in Ms. Janet Smith’s class. It means “a ringing or tinkling sound,” and Edgar Allan Poe used the word in the first stanza of his poem The Bells.
- “Priapic” showed up in college in Derek Walcott’s The Prodigal. Once “relating to or resembling a phallus” stumbles into your mind, it’s hard to get it out.
And how could I forget “phantasmagoric,” which F. Scott Fitzgerald uses at least twice in The Great Gatsby.
The definition certainly applies to Las Vegas: “having a fantastic or deceptive appearance, as something in a dream or created by the imagination.” Where else but in Vegas can you see a roller coaster arcing above a replica of the Statue of Liberty with the unbelievably gaudy faux Camelot towers and turrets of Excalibur Hotel right across the street?
Camelot and quail on a buffet? Only in Vegas. Go back for seconds.
This dilemma of word choice—or “diction,” for the purists—also presented itself during my freshman year at Lipscomb University when I wrote for the school newspaper, The Babbler.
My column covered everything from the local paletas shop (Spanish for “popsicles”), owned by four sisters from Mexico, to a eulogy for my grandfather who died that spring.
One friend named Allison told me she had to get out the dictionary every time she got my column. She seemed to enjoy the mental exercise. My roommate David, on the other hand, told me to write down to his level.
What’s a writer to do?
Those conversations got me to thinking seriously about my diction.
Is word choice the purview of writers, their tiny domain where they can be absolute dictators and anyone who tries to offer suggestions is meddling where serfs doth not dare to trod?
I believe we must ask a deeper question: As writers, is our first commitment to ourselves or to our readers? Do we indulge our flights of fancy and pluck out of the air the words that we like best? Or do we have some sort of responsibility to honor our readers, the people who take the time—that is, a precious, non-renewable resource—to read the words we so painstakingly assemble?
You should know I’m setting up a false dichotomy here.
I don’t believe writers have to choose between an unwavering commitment to craft and accessibility or intelligibility. Rather, each piece of writing presents an opportunity to reevaluate our goal for that piece of writing.
At times we may want to come down from our high aesthetic horses and make an essay easier to read. We break up the baroque sentences learned from William James. We may replace the million-dollar words with the sturdy, everyday variety that most everyone can understand in context immediately.
Sometimes, I want to be understood because I have something important to share. To be (perish the thought) plainspoken bespeaks warmth and hospitality, not a breach of artistic integrity.
Only the artists who know the rules can break them well.
In graduate school, my poetry professor Marilyn Kallet invited her friend Vivian Shipley to do a reading at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and to speak to my poetry workshop. In a moment of naked honesty, Shipley said something I won’t forget: Throughout her career, her colleagues and reviewers had called her “plainspoken.” They didn’t mean it as a compliment.
Even though Shipley had published many volumes of poetry and served as the editor of the award-winning Connecticut Review, that word “plainspoken” stung her. The same sensitivity that enables a poet to excel at her craft makes leaves her vulnerable to criticism.
Poets attack other poets with their own odd set of darts. There’s “plainspoken” of course, and “derivative,” which is to say unoriginal. Unoriginal as though there were anything new under the sun.
A colleague once called my lyric verse overly romantic.
Then, there’s a whole litany of pejoratives that only have poisoned tips for writers: pedestrian, pulp, vapid, and doggerel, to name a few.
Worst of all, what if someone were to tell me that my writing was obvious?
Poet Billy Collins catches flack for selling books.
Hopefully, you can appreciate the silliness: Poets pissed at a poet for writing poetry that someone not trained in reading poetry could read, understand, and appreciate. “How gauche! If the plebeians buy his books, he must not be very good.”
To reinforce our own injured sense of importance, we must tear down our colleagues. We could be prophets, but too often, we reduce ourselves to hen-pecking.
I’ve been guilty of it too.
All the smug witticisms at another writer’s expense, the snide repartees to expose that hack-pretender-sellout and, in so doing, discredit his or her success.
We’re wordsmiths so we can set off an awful lot of pyrotechnics on a page to disguise plain ol’ jealousy with a sprinkling of envy and white truffle oil.
My colleague, some blogger, ugh, got the success and acclaim and book deal and prize money I wanted. My ego goes on the warpath. So I’m going to dismantle him with our common arsenal of words to make myself feel better.
Of course all in the name of good art and the advancement of the human race and the children. We can’t forget the children.
Now I’ve started doing it again, denigrating the writers who denigrate writers. You see how quickly the trap shuts?
Let’s circle back around to the salient question: “What is my goal for any particular piece of writing?”
What is writing for anyway?
If a writer’s ultimate achievement isn’t to write something that only a handful of scholars could decipher—obliqueness doesn’t always belie importance—then what is a better goal?
I don’t think we’ll find easy answers. We will just as soon arrive at a definitive answer to this age-old inquiry: “What is art for?”
What I do know is that I want to participate in other people’s transformation. (That’s just me. I’m not foisting that calling onto other writers with different ones.) In order to participate in other people’s transformation, I share my thoughts and ideas, and clarity is the best vehicle for them.
At other times, when I write poetry, clarity is too heavy. It is a semi truck that will break the very asphalt that was supposed to convey its cargo.
What I’m talking about is picking the right vehicle for the job. And if the job is to make myself clearly understood, then I will hesitate after I reach for a lesser-known word like “dearth.”
The word is on a shelf in my memory. With my hand reached out, and up, I pause and ponder. When I fit this word into the whole, will it add clarity to clarity? Or will it deaden and confuse?
(“Befuddle” was the perfect word for that spot, but you know, I’m trying to practice what I preach here.)
Of course, meaning is never perfectly conveyed. Something always gets lost in translation. You and I, we’re playing a game of telephone.
To read the comments after a blog post is both funny and sad. I witness firsthand how people change, warp, and otherwise bludgeon a thought I tried to capture in words.
“That is not what I meant at all!” I think, and before thinking becomes fuming, I close the browser window.
Some members of my audience willfully misinterpret my words. If you’re a writer, then you also have experienced this low-grade injustice. Get used to it.
This misinterpretation is the reader’s right.
Once you have committed a piece of you to page, crystallized it outside of yourself, that piece no longer belongs to you exclusively. Thanks to the miracle of the World Wide Web, anyone may stumble across your careful edifice and spray their graffiti on it.
And that injustice, that lack of accountability, stings as much as being called “plainspoken” or “romantic” or “obvious.”
Vandals show up on blogs too, and the Internet gives them anonymity.
Okay. Fine. Deal with it. We cannot let the deliberate acts of vandalism divert us from our task.
Are we about the betterment of the human race? Will our writing elevate readers?
Will we every stoop and pick up so-called cruder tools that we may touch the hearts and minds of more strangers?
I cannot tell you which decision is best in each moment.
My thinking on the dearth versus shortage dilemma I have distilled down to a single principle. You must love the people who might one day read your work at least as much as you love the thrill of slinging words and watching them coalesce into an artifact that can survive your quick years.
We can love the power of language and literature to endure, and we can love its capacity to awaken, prophesy, and inspire.
Artistry and accessibility need not be oil and water. They can be a vinaigrette. Isn’t accessibility part of the art?
In short, I don’t believe I made myself smaller by picking a more common word, shortage, rather than dearth. (Shoot, I could have used “paucity,” and then where would we be?) I do not believe we brutalize language by appreciating its many uses.
I cannot tell you which to use, your own pleasure or hospitality. Either is best in each moment. So I will leave you with this self-gratifying dilemma: Love your words, love your readers, and love who you become as you balance the two.
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