Death by Squiggle
Today, I killed 6 metaphors, 3 allusions, 9 five-syllable words, 15 adjectives or adverbs, 3 gerunds, and 2 verbal nouns. They now lay smudged in scarlet ink on the pale page.
I recall imagining that being a writer would be a mysterious and almost magical occupation. Making up stories. Playing with words. Putting pen to paper. Sitting in wonder as one’s eyes gazed at the perfect paragraph, wondering where it came from. Watching as people hastily turned pages as if in a rush to see what would happen next.
Turns out, there’s a bit more to it than that.
My grandfather was a butcher. I remember as a child watching him apply his craft. He knew the cuts of meat he was looking to produce. He would move his knives and cleavers with precision until what he had imagined was on the block before him. I always watched in awe. Two things that I particularly remember. His knives were always razor sharp. He took great care to keep them that way. And, getting what he wanted was mostly about removing the parts that he didn’t want.
Like many other things, writing is both an art and a skill. Practiced long enough, it becomes a craft. An artist begins with lessons on colour. How lines intersect. Dimensions. Perspective. More canvas heads to the heap than will ever find a frame. The subjects grow from one apple on a table to orchards covering a distant hill as the evening sun lights an orange sky. The musician starts with uninformed fingers pressing resistant strings. Teaching the hands to move. Always slowly at first. Scales. Arpeggios. Translating ink on a page to movements on the neck of an instrument and strokes of a bow. Behind each bar performed are hundreds, repeated and reshaped. Hours and hours of trying again.
So why should writing be any different?
Yes. All true. But there is an element to the kind of writing that I do that seems something else altogether. Writing in simple English, in a “controlled language, requires placing specific limits on oneself that are not required of others. The Oxford English Dictionary defines more than 600,000 English word forms. Harvard University and Google estimate that there were more than one million English words in use in 2010. That number, they estimate, grows by more than 1,000 each year. In the system that I use, even when stretched beyond preferred limits, there are only 3,600 words available. Even those words are limited in the way that they can be used. For example, I can talk about a man who runs from a lion, but not of one who runs a fever. Metaphors are not in the toolbox (nor is the use of “toolbox” in this non-literal sense).
So, my writing seems to require a generous amount of red ink and multiple marks, and squiggles before it can see the light of day.
Someday, I hope to get better at this particular style of writing. More accurately, I hope to become a good writer – eventually. Until then, I will keep practicing, sometimes in public, until that perfect paragraph spills onto the page.
Note: My apologies to Mrs. Woods, Derr, Yost, and Halsey (my grade 1 to 4 teachers) for the sentence fragments, dangling modifiers, and unclear antecedents in this piece. You did teach me better than that. But today, I left the red pen in its scabbard.