Every stone counts...
I'm not ignoring you.
I'm busy building my empire.
Language is the gift—as well as the tool—allowing and enabling us to appreciate, understand, and express the complexity and nuance of our inner and outer lives. Our language builds upon itself, and it evolves, as we evolve, to breathe the newest air of the universe. The right words bring clarity to chaos and echo long in the halls of existence. Those who listen will be enlightened, and those who read will be entranced by the mysterious alchemy of a shared language. It is this sharing of words that begs our focus. We need to let the words we use bubble up from the broth of shared experience, and as like minds congregate, you will find your audience as much as they will find you.
I worked off and on for a number of years building stone walls for John Bordman—a brilliant and ornery yankee curmudgeon who insisted every wall be a “testament to eternity.” I was young and rough and unfazed as I tried learn everything I needed to learn from him about this “piling on of stones.” From early on in my apprenticeship, he would leave me at a site for hours on end to pick through a mountain of stone, stumbling and groping for the stones that"fit together" to make the wall. I placed my stones and squinted at them from a distance (just like John) to see if the hand of gravity, and not the vanity of man, placed each stone in its rightful and eternal place in time and space.
Invariably, John would return, opera music blaring from his truck, and he would calmly and quietly destroy the better parcel of my day's work. As critical as he was of society, he rarely crushed my fragile ego by criticizing my efforts. Instead, he would say things like, "Damn hard to find good stones in this pile!" In the same breath he would add, "But, it's all we have to work with." With an intense flurry, he would then craft a magnificent wall—a wall that will last for centuries—walls built out of the material at hand, walls only a true connoisseur of stone walls appreciates.
It didn't take long to discover building stone walls would take its toll on the body and the fingers of a fledgling folksinger; however, in my world of metaphor, I carry those same stones with me as I struggle to build a song, a poem, a story—or this. Words are the stones we work with; and the more stones in our pile, the more readily we build the wall of our dreams. Equally important is the reality that a pile of good stone does not make a wall—as a thousand new vocabulary words won't make you a better writer.
John Bordman never went out and bought more stone just to have more to choose from; instead, he always bought or scavenged “good stone” in the first place—stone from walls edging the fields (and what once was fields) all over New England—hand-picked stones culled from the wisdom of his experience—big, solid, interesting stones—stones covered in moss and lichen long weathered by the storms and ravages of time.
We don’t need obscure words as much as we need good words—and we need to recognize good words. If our experience of life is limited and shallow, our big words will only impress small minds and alienate the truly wise. We need the experience of words used well, words used in elevated writing, words used in great speeches—words we hear and read and feel in meaningful ways; words we see working to bring sense to the senseless.
An effective vocabulary is attentiveness to precise language. It means embracing the world of words used well; it means turning off asinine TV; it means measuring a book by the possibilities it presents, not by its rank on the best seller lists, and it means discussions informed by wisdom and decorum—not polemics or politics. If you are a writer, enter your writer's space with an open and disciplined mind. Learn the craft and recognizing the art of writing well.
Writing is—and always will be—rough stone on rough stone placed intentionally in repetitive, purposeful cadence...