How Writers Fail (Part 6): Words

From Kristine Kathryn Rus ch:

Lately, I’ve been stuck in words. The right word, as a matter of fact.

As some of you know, I’m studying Spanish, rather intensely, truth be told. I’m slowly moving away from being functionally illiterate in Spanish (where I know every word except the important one) and moving toward marginally literate in Spanish.

But you should hear me talk. Or maybe you shouldn’t. It’s somewhat embarrassing. I go along great guns and then I forget—if I ever knew—some word. In class one day, the word I forgot was the word for sixteen. Which I have known since I was sixteen, if not since I was eight. That word just left my head.

Of late, I’ve made it a point not to ask anyone in Spanish, “How do you say sixteen?” with the word sixteen in English. A lot of my fellow students do that, and someone usually provides the word. That doesn’t help.

. . . .

There are a million ways to make yourself understood, many of them imperfect, but they work. Work how? They communicate, which is the entire point.

. . . .

When you’re in the words, though, the words become important. Learning languages teaches me that on a weird level. The goal, when you speak another language, is for the language to flow. I don’t want to talk rapidly and then stop and fumble for the right word…or any word.

If I make too many mistakes in a conversation, I suddenly become tongue-tied because I’m afraid of making more mistakes.

I’m trapped in the words and I lose track of my thoughts as well as the thread of the conversation. That’s when the other speaker jumps in and tries to supply a word, not to make me more comfortable or even to make me feel stupid, but to recapture the flow.

We want to lose ourselves in the conversation. We don’t want to think about each word. Imagine how difficult it would be to discuss anything if everyone was pausing and searching for the perfect word.

It simply doesn’t work.

Yet so many writers write that way. I have known many writers over the years who were so happy to get a paragraph done in their daily writing session. I know one writer, badly broken in his years in Hollywood, who spent eight hours getting that one paragraph, which he would then erase the following morning and start again.

It took him months to finish a short story, and he wondered why everyone thought his writing had declined.

His writing hadn’t. His storytelling skills had.

He spent so much time searching for the perfect word, the perfect phrase, that he wasn’t getting lost in the story.

When stories flow, we writers tell those stories to ourselves. Most of us actually have stepped into the world of the story. We can hear the dialogue, see the people (characters) talking, feel what the protagonist feels, and feel the events unfold around us.

Most writers lose track of where they are, which is why writing in a safe space is important. When I’m in the flow, someone could tell me that they’re going to give me a million dollars and I wouldn’t hear a word. I know Dean is that way too.

Writing is, in many ways, akin to the act of reading. After a certain point, it’s not an intellectual exercise. It’s a full-body escape. You might be sitting on the couch, reading your favorite author’s latest, but in your mind, you’re climbing an ice flow or running from a vampire or kissing the sexiest person in the room.

We all know what that kind of reading feels like. The act of writing—really, the act of storytelling—does the exact same thing.

Too many writers worry about the words. They worry that they have the wrong word or that they stated something “incorrectly.” It took me years to realize that only I knew if something was or was not incorrect. It was my story after all. No one else knew what was going to happen next, and no one else knew what I was trying to communicate.

I found that realization quite freeing. I could stop worrying about words and their cousin, grammar, and start focusing on the story.

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