diction or vocabulary

Punctuation & my pig tale

July 6, 2017 | 14 Comments

Sign me, Bemused

December 3, 2015 | 30 Comments

Way back in graduate school I wrote a paper on the misuse of forte. It means a person’s strong suit when pronounced “fort” but refers to a loud musical passage when pronounced as its spelling indicates, for-tey. Or once it did. The distinction has almost been lost partly because people who knew better began mispronouncing forte to fit in.

Which I think is what interested me, that cognitive dissonance. Everyone wants to belong, to be admired by her or his chosen group. So I was upset when I realized recently that I’d misused the word “bemused” several times in my book, Shepherd: A Memoir. The memorable one to me involves our ewe Big Mama and her sardonic attitude toward me. I said she was bemused by me.

But bemused does not mean “extra amused”; it means bewildered or confused; a secondary meaning is lost in thought. The word is so rampantly misused that its meaning may be changing. And even when used correctly, its meaning often is unclear.

Here’s Mary Karr, describing her father as her storytelling model, in The Art of Memoir: “He had a talent for physical detail and a bemused attention to the human comedy.” Karr is a best-selling memoirist and a respected poet, so we must assume she’s using the word correctly here. Or must we? I think so. Yet Karr intends praise, and it’s more flattering to her father to picture him as amused by the human comedy than confused by it. Maybe he’s just a bit puzzled like everyone else in this comedy of errors we call life.

You can see the lack of clarity flowing from this slippery word.

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Structure & style

October 14, 2015 | 13 Comments

Published writers always say revision is the sin qua non of effective prose. Dinty W. Moore just affirmed it in my interview with him—he claims to produce weak first drafts, which become strong as they undergo up to 50 revisions. In her new The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr says one of her poems might take 60 versions. “I am not much of a writer,” she says, “but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser.”

I used to think I was a great reviser myself. Probably because I edit and polish as I go, and then polish some more. Recently I’ve seen that two factors that impair my revising also seem to afflict some other writers.

The first issue involves resistance to complete structural overhauls. I saw this in my book. I put it through six versions, which embodied two excellent, hired developmental edits; one free problematic one; a paid whole-book copy edit; and countless piecemeal edits from friends and fellow writers. After all that, I resisted—because I feared—the mere idea of soliciting one more opinion. I was scared that someone would show me clearly that I needed a whole new approach that would send me back to the blank screen.

I’ve seen this resistance in other writers, and it’s a problem if the writer has stopped too soon—no matter how many years s/he’s labored. Ironically, and thankfully, while reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild at the eleventh hour, I saw a key structural move I needed. And a new template for my prologue. I’ve written about this breakthrough, which I saw only because of years of work, including the advice I had been receptive to. After learning how to use backstory from Strayed, and writing a new prologue that like hers showcases a dramatic moment, I knew my book was ready.

It gives me chills to recall that an editor had actually suggested, at the very start of my writing, the restructuring I took from Wild—but I’d forgotten his advice

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Wrong word! 

August 19, 2015 | 12 Comments

I’ll never forget the day in high school when my English teacher accused me of plagiarism because of a word. I was 16 or 17 and had shown off by using “belies” in an essay. Since I was disrespectful to him, and acted like a simpering idiot in his class, he had good reason to suspect and dislike me. True to form, I laughed in his face. But that was long before the internet, which has made plagiarism—and catching it—easy. So he couldn’t do much except glare.

I’m sorry Mr. X!

I was just showing off, using a new word I’d learned. Partly I was flattered that he thought I had taken a professional’s work. Wow, though. Really just one word had tipped the balance. Diction does give us away. But I catch plagiarism these days because a student who slams together bald syntax suddenly turns in flowing, clause-laden, prose. Cheaters have the sense to change words they don’t understand.

Teachers’ and writers’ occasional admonitions against thesaurus use have always struck me as odd. They fear a student or rookie is going to use an overblown, polysyllabic word. One he doesn’t understand and that stands out from his mundane diction. I suppose that has happened once or twice. What using the thesaurus does for me, in contrast, is to remind me of old, plain, short words.

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Poetry of Light in August

June 22, 2015 | 8 Comments

William Faulkner began as a poet, and it shows. He adores words. His sentences shine as well in Light in August, sometimes referred to as his greatest novel. Sometimes it’s also called his most accessible great one, the last bead on his string of masterpieces between 1929 and 1932: Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary. I remember Light in August fondly from college. I wrote mostly poetry then, and realized only recently that I had based a character, in an epic poem I was slaving over on nights, after the novel’s immortal Lena Grove.

Rereading it this summer, I’m struck by how sure a writer Faulkner was. His sentences thrill and inspire. Then again, there are enough of those Faulkneresque doozies to keep you on your toes. The story is simple. Lena Grove, a poor and naïve, very pregnant but indomitable, a girl from nowhere Alabama, tracks her feckless beau to Mississippi. He works as a sawdust shoveler at a sawmill with a fellow named Joe Christmas, a bootlegger, soon-to-be murderer, and all-around tortured soul. Suffice it to say, troubles ensue.

Some of Faulkner’s sentences are seemingly based on his observations, others seemingly arise from his immersion in his fictive story.

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John McPhee on writer’s block

April 28, 2013 | 24 Comments

McPhee explains loving revision, I rename this blog Draft No. 4. If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. —John McPhee Thursday night, I told my wife about my notion …

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Richard Russo’s ‘Elsewhere’

February 4, 2013 | 20 Comments

Review: Narrative risks & rewards in a talky memoir about Mom. “You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”—Russo’s father to him when he was twenty. Elsewhere by Richard Russo. Knopf, 243 pp. Rather dense, slow-moving, and expository, Elsewhere isn’t a memoir I’d make students read. Smoothly written, interestingly structured, a complex portrait of mental illness, love, and lower middle class life in a wretched town, Elsewhere is a book I’d recommend, with caveats, to adults. They must be serious readers, …

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