‘What is the most necessary thing for a writer?’ I often ask in my writing classes. ‘A publishing contract,’ an occasional smartass might reply. Mostly, though, I get sound answers: a voice, a good ear for dialogue, a compelling narrative. Yet this is not what I am after. I try another way: ‘Painters have colors, dancers have their bodies. What are our basic tools?’ But every time I am met with a silence that possibly reflects our cultural focus on the macro: goals and their accomplishment.
But can macro exist without micro? What is a skyscraper without its building blocks? Our building blocks are words. A writer’s voice is, above all, an outcome of her particular choice of words. Words are the writer’s palette, her signature. And how can we bring even the most fascinating character alive if we haven’t found the right words to describe her?
I like Francine Prose’s advice to writers in her wonderful book Reading like a Writer: ‘Ask yourself what sort of information each word – each word choice – is conveying’. I think about this advice when I re-read passages from my favorite writers for inspiration. Helen Garner comes to mind with her both lyrical and sharply ironic voice:
An expensive couple in a Bondi café. She’s in her twenties, glossy, slim, grittily determined. He’s pushing sixty and his grey hair is receding, but money is oozing from his pores and she is soaking it up – on her terms.
Imagine that instead Garner wrote:
A couple was sitting in a Bondi café. The man, in his late fifties, looked rich and powerful in his expensive suit. His companion, thin and pampered, twenty-something, was probably a gold-digger.
How much more powerful and nuanced is the first description? Its substitute conveys the same information, but artlessly. It doesn’t stir my emotions.
I am usually the happiest when I manage to write slowly, motivated not by the desire to bring a tale or an essay to its completion, but by my desire for words. I love focusing on each word, in a kind of Buddhist version of the writing process. Such a pace allows me to experience the sensuality embedded in language. During those dreamy writing sessions, I like to pronounce words before choosing them. I relish words, roll them on my tongue like chocolate truffles, taking notice of which ones feel the sweetest. This process helps me to discover the right vocabulary and rhythm for the piece I am working on. And, at least for a short while, the pleasures of words exorcise my anxieties about the quality of my work, my prospects of being published, the state of contemporary literature…
Like the kabbalists, I perceive words as multidimensional. Beyond the obvious delight I take in contemplating the subtleties of their meanings, I also love their flavors – how sugar melts in the mouth… I also love words’ shapes. But phonetics is probably my favorite aspect. The swishy sound of witch… Even my recently arrived baby’s name I chose because of how it sounds – Luca. The choice has nothing to do with the name’s meaning or with Italy, just my loving the soft, foreign, even bohemian music of the name.
Words are the most powerful writing tool I know. When I manage to write word-by-word, I am less vulnerable to using clichés, because I take the time and pleasure in choosing words that are at once surprising and precise. In boring books the air is always cool and children’s faces are always sweet, the birds are singing and the sun is yellow. But is it so, or is this what we are programmed to think? Today I looked up in the sky and the sun was green, I swear.
Words also often guide me towards finding my subject matter. This was how I came to write a creative nonfiction piece Sultry nights in Sokhumi and Melbourne, which ties together two stories: my date with a Russian man in a Russian restaurant in Melbourne some years ago, and the story of my mother breaking her engagement in the early 1970s in the Soviet Union when her fiancé reveals his anti-Semitic attitudes. But before I knew what I was writing about, or why I was telling these stories together, all I had were two sets of words that appealed to me. One described the Russian restaurant:
Most of the women were middle-aged or older, and wore their hair in chignons and drew their green, feline eyes at such high angles that they were like multiple, human versions of Lilith. The younger ones wore dresses that made me look like Cinderella before she’d met her fairy. They were natural-born ball dames – with long elaborated garments having openings and slits in utterly unexpected locations. Their heels were long, and their legs were longer and even the youngest seemed older than their years and so sophisticated, with spray-designed hair and miniature artworks on their sharp nails. I was intimidated – the only one with no evening bag and with loose, knotted hair – and so I settled for the food.
The other set of words described Sokhumi, an Abkhazian resort city, where my mother possibly met her fiancé:
They walked the streets at night and kissed under the streetlights, under the cypresses, under the ancient buildings that had been ravaged during the Second World War and never repaired, but were decorated with gigantic red portraits of Lenin: We shall go forward. Step higher with energy and unity of will. V.I. Lenin.
As I strung these two stories word-by-word, trusting the process to lead me into something worthwhile, I eventually worked out what I was telling and why. Both stories described the same thing – how the foreignness of our lovers can be at once an aphrodisiac and a letdown.
When we write using our lives, writing word-by-word can also stimulate memory. Particularly when I write about my childhood, I often focus on words that I associate with that time. Naturally, mine are Russian words: pesenik – a handwritten collection of famous song lyrics; zhvachka – chewing gum. Each word contains stories I might not have recalled otherwise – how I traded lyrics with popular girls in the futile hope to be liked; how I’d receive American chewing gum from overseas visitors who snuck illegally into our house at nighttime…
The problem is I am, too, driven by goals. Often I desire to have written something more than I desire the writing process itself. When I struggle to slow down, instead rushing towards the end of the story I am working on, I find it useful doing the following exercise, which I also like doing with my students: I make lists of words that feel the most delicious to me. Here are my current top ten:
As you probably noticed, linguistically I’m into extravaganza, the exact opposite of such purists as Chandler and Hemingway. I love reading diverse prose styles, but when I read for inspiration I need to land in the country of the likeminded. My writerly compatriots are the possessed authors, those for whom writing is sex, those in whose cascading sentences you can drown or whose words you’d want to eat. My writers – Marquez, Bulgakov, Fitzgerald – dance tango rather than ballet. This is because I am a sensualist in many ways, but especially when it comes to language. When I work, I am the happiest when I write about emerald shining through the melancholy night, when I write about strawberries.
Now, what about your list? What does it say about you as a writer? Where do you belong?