It's generally accepted, even by writers, that they are obsessive types. Flaubert once recorded a day in which he spent the morning putting a comma in, and the afternoon taking it out. As well as with the process of writing, writers obsess over subjects, characters, themes. I spent years researching the life of legendary spy and courtesan Mata Hari, and finally published a book of poetry on her life. As I stated in its introduction, I never fully understood why this subject chose me, as my previous verse had been on the usual personal themes of love, life, death, and unpaid parking tickets.
I'm now working on my first suspense novel, in which the detective accidentally uncovers key facts about one of the most mysterious assassinations of the 20th century, a murder which has posessed not only writers, but investigators, movie-makers, bloggers and all species of conspirary theorists. However, my subject today (yes, I do have one) is not the specific obsessions which have gripped my imagination during 40-plus years of writing. It's words themselves that are my Ur-fixation.
For as long as I can remember, words have fascinated me. They have both dictionary meanings -- denotations -- and culturally constructed ones -- connotations. They are mysterious, useful and elusive, precise yet arbitrary. As a child, I remember puzzling over why each being and object earned its specific English noun, except for terms with obvious onomatopeia, like whoosh. Where is the innate horsiness in horse? How could two closely-linked languages like English and French (cheval) have such different-sounding labels for the same animal?
Eventually I moved onto other verbal questions, becoming interested in derivations (a pursuit that earned me the nickname "walking dictionary") and also their fine shades. I discovered, for example, that tawdry comes from an alley in London, St. Audrey's, that once held lace-sellers; that silly originally meant crazy; nice meant accurate or precise. My literary sensibility became jarred by the many writers who confuse and misuse closely related but distinct terms such as nauseous (sickeningly bad) and nauseated (ready to toss cookies) or uninterested (bored) and disinterested (unbiased). Related occupations I ventured into such as editing, proofreading and English teaching caused my inability to appreciate the whole of a text or advertisement when a glaring typo or grammatical error distracted me (Fenway Dodge Opens It's New Premises!)
As I began to develop skills as a poet, I learned to savour words in much the way that that a visual artist appreciates the variations of colour, material and texture. Poets, unlike prose writers, need to consider each word not only for its meaning, but also for its sound, rhythm and associations. Does the word feel right for its place in the line? Would a synonym be better or worse? If I'm mentioning a style of cooked rice, do I want the commonplace sticky with its barely-hidden echo of icky, or do I want the more technical, yet also comical-sounding glutinous, which suggests the steps of someone whose shoes are covered in glue?
I could go on, and as you have noticed by now, I do. However, in the hope of finding an ending before I venture further into the jungle of English etymology, let me add one tad, no -- bit -- ... wait, particle might be better here... of advice to aspiring writers reading this. Develop your own obsessions with words. Read widely over a variety of genres, and when you encounter a word or term you don't know, write it down and then look it up and use it. Get over the lazy habit (which most of my students have) of simply stepping over an unknown word like a rock on a path, never turning it over to see what lurks underneath. Buy a good large dictionary that includes derivations and examples of usage over the ages. Paper beats electronic here, because you often find new or interesting words in a nearby column or page. Make lists of words according to their sounds, suggestions, associations. Collect new ones to dazzle -- no, irritate... your family and friends. I'm fond, for example, of whipping out absquatulate or bifurcated when the moment demands, although to tell the truth I'm still waiting for absquatulate's time in the sun. A mechanic needs a wide variety of high-quality tools to complete a job; a writer's tools are a working mind, curiosity, and a good storehouse of slippery, evanescent and salty words.
Causes John Oughton Supports
PEN International, Amnesty International, League of Canadian Poets, POR AMOR, Greenpeace