Friday, April 27, 2012

Words I (Almost) Never Use

In this blog I’d like to discuss words that are overly literary, or too poetic, self-consciously artistic, or dogmatic in tone. These are words I’ve heard too many times in creative writing. They’ve been used so often they no longer have much impact. Here are some examples:

angel/angelic
awareness
beauty/beautiful
being
butterfly
calm
caress
consciousness
crystal
dawn
diamond
ecstasy
eternity/eternal
flower
glisten
happy
harmony
infinity/infinite
meditate/meditative
mind
nothingness
oppression
peace
people (as in, “the people”)
pretty
rainbow
raindrop/rainy
silence
soft
sparkle
spiritual
storm/stormy
struggle
stunning
sunset
sunny
sweet
tranquillity
tremble

These words fall into several categories. One group concerns beauty, or things that are intrinsically beautiful, such as butterflies and crystals. Another group includes words that relate to spiritual awareness. One other category is words associated with political movements. Then there are words that describe weather.

All of these are terrific words. Most authors I know have written them at one time or another. It’s just that they’ve been used so many times that they have sunk into greeting-card, cliché language. They feel so tired they've just about fallen asleep.

Since they are words for real and crucial things, how can we come up with expressions that function in a similar manner, but still surprise and delight the reader?

Get as close as possible to the actual experience you’re describing. Let’s say you’re writing about a sunrise after a rainstorm that led to a moment of transcendent awareness. What exactly did you see and experience? When you say “ecstasy,” what were you actually feeling? Where were the raindrops, and precisely what type of flower were they on? If raindrops were trembling on a leaf, could you push it farther and say they were “rattling” on the leaf? What colors were the clouds that you’ve never heard described before. Not “silver” but “white gold,“ for instance. Use your imagination to stretch the language as far as it can go and still connect with your reader.

If you’re talking about a shantytown, can you find details that are so specific that the oppression that produces that situation becomes painfully clear? That way the oppression doesn’t get obscured by a generalized word that could describe many different things.

Another way to rescue these overused words is to place them in an unexpected context or next to a word they don’t usually appear with. What about a “delicious crystal”? Or an “eternal alley cat”? Or an “elegant rain”? Or a “Monarch” instead of a “butterfly”?

I hope I don’t sound too cynical about these words for beauty, spiritual experiences, and political change. All those things are important, but it’s also crucial to strive toward freshness of language. Language must be continually recreated. Its respiration is vital to writers.

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