Words (or, the thing vs. the description of the thing)

I sell used tractor-trailers for a living. Often, I can sell trailers to my customers via photos that a seller forwards to me and I never have to leave my desk or dirty my hands. Sometimes, if the trailers are near enough, I go inspect them and take my own marketing photos. There are times I’ve inspected a unit “in the flesh”, and even done a write-up of its flaws, blemishes, and strong points; and then I get home to my computer and pull up the photos, and they don’t do justice to the trailer, or, on a more regular basis, they look better than the actual piece of equipment they visually represent.

Words are like that. They are oral or written abstractions of actual ideas, or of real world things, events, people, and places. Words are symbolic only and are not the thing described. Sometimes the words used are better than the actual thing (that would be descriptive of most advertising hype; which is short for hyperbole, by the way). Other times, the words don’t do the thing justice. Take the phrase, “What a beautiful sunset,” to convey the sight of a panoramic skyscape of surreal colors and lights so intense it can almost be tasted.

A common phrase you hear is: “Words mean things.”  And this is without a doubt true. But what exactly do words mean?  A skillful rhetorician (or thirteen-year-old drama queen) can torture words so that they become the literary equivalent of abstract painting compared to “real life?” On the other hand, Hemingway wrote in short, simple five word sentences and painted masterpieces his readers can vividly see and feel. In my attempt to sound intelligent and articulate, does my use of polysyllabic words in sentences cobbled together with commas and semi-colons conceal the “real thing” thing from my readers?

When I write, the whole point of the exercise is to strive to find the words and phrases that reveal the essence of whatever it is I’m narrating. I am sometimes frustrated that there are no better choices to describe a particular event or emotion. (Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize the word “skyscape” I used a couple of paragraphs above, for instance) I can imagine how aggravating this is for a genuine wordsmith or poet! I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising since it is obvious that words, whether oral or written, evolved sequentially after the thing or idea for which they were created to represent. Trees existed way before the word “tree”, or “arbre”, or even before the letters were first scratched out that are needed to craft these written words together…

The specialist, it is said, uses language that confuses, rather than enlightens, his hearers. The doctor’s use of jargon, for instance, creates a fog of mystification between the unwashed layman and the highly-trained-and-rigorously-educated physician that is himself. Thus a bruise becomes a subdural contusion exhibiting epidural edema. For fuck’s sake, it’s a bruise with some swelling, alright!? Other doctor’s may understand, but to the patient he is speaking in tongues. As St. Paul so eloquently said, “Unless the trumpet sounds a clear tone, who will prepare himself for battle?” The patient hearing the above diagnosis may think he’s facing an amputation when all he really needs to do is hold a bag of frozen peas on his injury.

A shared language, employed thoughtfully, is the most common framework we have for building understanding, establishing relationships, and convening cooperation…and vice versa, its misuse can create chasms of separation. I want to use words that capture the subject in the clearest most universal light. I want my word pictures to look like the real trailers, to the best of my ability. I want to engage my reader’s mind with my own to the degree that he never has to “leave his desk and dirty his hands” to figure out what the hell it is I’m trying to say. Such a goal will be worth keeping in mind as I continue to record my thoughts for whomever may eventually read them.

On writing as a process

So, I haven’t written anything in 3 days and I actually feel guilty about it. This is a good thing. Writing has been good for me so far in many ways that are not necessarily empirical. It’s hard to quantify the type of catharsis that comes simply from getting my own thoughts out of my head and into a linear, written form. I’ve gained some clarity on the things I’ve written about as well as a sense of closure on some items (or at least a sense of taxonomy for where the issue should fit in my life).

Writing forces me to make choices. What to say? What not to say? What fits with what? What is and isn’t pertinent and important? It also makes me step away from the flow of ideas that are “gut level” and visceral and come back in a day or two to revise. I’m in need of revision in my life a lot of times and doing this “after the fact” editing in my writing will hopefully help me to remember that my gut level responses are not always right, or at least not always worded exactly the way they ought to be.

I really like the concepts of means and ends. I also believe that every action undertaken has one of two possible ultimate ends in mind at the type of the action’s genesis. The two possible ultimate ends of any human are: 1) to please oneself; and 2) the glory and pleasure of God. I learned this from reading Charles Finney’s Systematic Theology, written in the 1830’s before the Civil War.

Those being the only possible ends, I have to say that writing for me is a means of accomplishing both. I believe God has gifted me with the ability to synthesize thought and language in order to communicate ideas effectively. Thus, writing becomes a “tip of the cap” to honor God for granting me that giftedness. But writing also gives me personal, subjective, internalized pleasure that is quite real and gratifying.

I don’t always write with an end in mind. Like at this very moment, the writing is a means of getting some free form ideas out of my mind and onto this digital paper. But the act of writing is almost an end (a proximate one…) in itself. Being able to see my ideas take on some “concreteness” from the amorphous soup of my thought life is a pleasurable exercise in its own right.

I’m not sure if most writers sit down with their end clearly in view. I’m not sure if that is what makes for “good” writing. I think it must be true in some way that all “art forms” allow enough spontaneity in the artist that he enjoys the form, the medium, as much as the finished product. Surely a guitarist enjoys hearing himself play. And a ballerina must love the feeling of the dance. I suppose it could be true that the “enjoyment” is not necessarily always positive or pleasurable for the moment. I’m thinking of Van Gogh, and others like him, who painted or created with a sense of foreboding and self-loathing, and yet when a particular piece was complete, there was sense of finality and accomplishment. (At least temporarily, as Van Gogh was known to have painted over many paintings as he reused canvases due to both his self-doubt and poverty.) My guess is that no matter what the art, if the art form were too unpleasant for the artist, he would stop doing it before long.

I have just assumed that writers always knew the whole story beforehand. I think it’s true of some of them. (Dostoevsky is said to have known the last sentence of Crime and Punishment before he began the novel). But maybe that isn’t always the case. Of course, if a topic is given beforehand, it’s best to stay on point, but otherwise, I’m curious how much freedom and therefore “discovery” and surprise is experienced by writers.

I believe it’s this notion, probably erroneous, that I had to know the whole story, have everything mapped out and charted and diagrammed on the front end, that kept me paralyzed and not writing anything for so many years. I had no complete story in my mind, therefore I didn’t write anything, on any subject. But I’ve come to see in a few short weeks of self-imposed discipline, that I do know some about a few things and I can write it down.

I like where the words take me. I like not knowing exactly how the ribbon will get tied and where I’ll put the bow on the package. It’s exciting to let the ideas flow out and take their own shape under the watchful eye of my inner editor and critic. I get to “play jazz” and listen at the same time as an audience member.

That aspect of writing as a “process” is very unexpected for me. It is also thrilling! It is that feeling that makes me want to sit down and devote time to this endeavor. Even in a week during which I have 4 kids living with me (because of Spring Break) instead of the usual one, I have completed 4 separate trailer deals, I’ve celebrated one of the kid’s birthdays, and I’ve been stretched to still try to be a good boyfriend. I plan to keep on practicing and as Merlin Mann says put 5 words together on a page.