Whistle While You Work

Men at work by hugovk, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  hugovk 

In my two experiences with Weekend Warrior — the contest on Codex Writers where participants are given prompts for five weeks and have approximately 54 hours to write a 750-word flash piece inspired by one of the prompts — I’ve received a good bit of very terse feedback, one particular recurring phrase of which I had taken to be a negative, because I honestly had no idea what it meant, but it sounded bad. Weekend Warrior critiques are just a few words, with no space or time for in-depth commentary.

<digression> From a reader’s perspective, it may sound like I’m completely obsessed with Weekend Warrior and with critiques and that I spend all my waking time dwelling on it. I don’t. This blog is about writing, so if something occurs to me that clarifies my writing or reading patterns, I may write about it. But there are many other things that occupy my time, and I have spent no more time dwelling on Weekend Warrior or the critiques therefrom than any of you have spent worrying about whether Kim Kardashian . . . uh, I have nowhere to go after that, because I couldn’t care less. But that’s my point. I go weeks without thinking about it, and then a little whisper in the recesses of my frontal lobe surfaces: “‘Workmanlike language’: what does that even mean?” So bear with me, and please don’t go away with the impression that I’m obsessed. :) Now, back to my blog post, already in progress.</digression>

So, the other day, I saw the same phrase used on some forum . . . and it was quite obviously a compliment. So I asked a friend of mine, Terra LeMay, who recently acquired an agent for her novel and for whom I could not be more excited, “What does ‘workmanlike language’ mean to you?” I explained in what contexts I’d heard it.

Her answer not only surprised me, but has given me quite a bit of insight to my own writing and why I inexplicably don’t like some stories / books that are otherwise well-written.

‘Workmanlike language’ basically means that the words that tell the story don’t stand out. Don’t draw attention to themselves. There are no turns of phrase that make you stop reading and say, “Wow! That was beautiful!” and then read it again and again, with the words rolling off your (figurative or literal) tongue. In other words, to quote William Shakespeare out of context, “The play’s the thing.” (Actually, quoting Shakespeare, here, who is quite well-known for his beautiful, often lyrical and surprising turns of phrase was probably not a good choice. Nevertheless, I’m going to go with it.). The words stay out of the way, letting the story — the millieu, ideas, characters, and events — be the star.

And it dawned on me: this is not a negative remark (although it’s possible some people might have meant it that way): it’s positive, for me.

Because this is what I strive to do. It is also what I look for in the things I read.

My feeling about writing and reading is that if you’re paying attention to the words, you’re not giving enough attention to what they’re saying. My characters don’t enunciate with mellifluous melismatic ease . . . they talk. Or perhaps speak.

Now, I can look back on some very good books that . . . I’ve just been kind of ‘meh’ about. Because, as Gloria Estéfan might say, “the words get in the way.”

I like some of them in spite of the flowery language (and I don’t mean ‘flowery’ as an insult, much in the same way that ‘workmanlike’ is not an insult now that I know what it means) because they have the other elements that I want in equal measure. So I can read a novel or story with flowery, expressive language that draws attention to itself, but as long as the story itself holds my interest, I’m fine. I might even pause over a particularly well-put-together sentence and marvel at it and wish I’d written it.

A recent example is Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, which I read as part of a reading group I belong to. Most everyone else seemed to like it, but it just left me high and dry. They were all talking about the beautiful, poetic language while I was saying, “All the absurd stuff lost me.”1 I was focusing on the story; they were focusing on the language, and the stuff behind the language.

It also dawns on me as I type this blog post that this very issue is probably the problem I have with most poetry. In poetry, the words are key, and the beautiful turn of phrase is the point.

Since we’re already talking about Shakespeare, compare these two side-by-side excerpts from Hamlet, Act III, scene 1, in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are telling Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia about their encounter with Hamlet:

Nor do we find him forward to be sounded
But with a crafty madness keeps aloof
When we would bring him on to some confession
Of his true state.
“And he’s not exactly eager to be interrogated. He’s very sly and dances around our questions when we try to get him to talk about how he feels,” Guildenstern said.
                    Did he receive you well?
“Did he treat you well when you saw him?” asked Gertrude.

[Note: Text on left is public domain. The modern English explication on the right is taken from the No Fear Shakespeare website and used entirely without permission, but I’m pretty sure it falls under fair use. I merely added the quotes and attribution, like you’d see in dialogue in a novel.]

Shakespeare’s original language is beautiful. It’s in iambic pentameter, it rhymes, and each word is carefully chosen to convey meaning and still remain faithful to the form. The right-hand text is ‘workmanlike prose.’ It’s more like what I would write in a story, and far closer to what I would rather read. The meaning is conveyed, but while I might quote Shakespeare, I will only remember the meaning conveyed by the words on the right.

Of course, certain caveats apply here: Shakespeare was writing a play in a strict form requiring rhyme and meter and a certain flair for a turn of phase. He even made words up when existing ones didn’t suffice. But if I were reading a modern adaptation of Hamlet in the form of a novel, I would expect to see language much more consistent with what’s on the right. Because people actually speak that way. The words and their arrangement don’t obfuscate what is being said. The prose form doesn’t require that normal sentence structure be subverted to fit a rhyme or meter.

So I guess what I’m trying to get around to saying2 is this: each individual writer (and reader) uses language that not only makes them comfortable, but excites them and is appropriate for the work itself.

And for me, that is often “workmanlike language.” :)

  1. The very point at which it lost me was when his wife came to visit him in prison and brought all the household belongings, members of her family, the cat, etc, and spent the entire time talking to everyone but him, as he basically cowered in his crowded cell speaking to no one. I did get that there were a number of metaphors and a lot of symbolism going on, but it was at that point that I just stopped caring and said, ‘This is too far out in Absurdland for me to even see the way home.’
  2. I often have a point, and I sometimes actually get around to making it. :)





I frequently have vivid dreams that involve quite elaborate plots that, on occasion, stick with me after awakening. Unfortunately, almost as soon as I start thinking about the day ahead — the minute my eyes open — the wistful vapors of the dream vanish and the ideas are gone.

I also tend to get writing ideas at times when my brain is otherwise disengaged, but my body is doing something habitual. The two main times this happens are when I’m driving and when I’m showering. If it weren’t for driving and showering — in addition to me being a social pariah and being unable to work — I’d have virtually no ideas for writing.

The third time my disengaged brain offers ideas up to me is in those few minutes between when the sleep monster begins to immobilize my body and when I drift off into unconsciousness. The sheets are so nice and soft, the blanket so snug, the pillow supports my head just right . . . and then blam, an idea pops into my head. A really good idea.

For that scene that I can’t seem to finish, or to end the story I’m having trouble with. And my brain whispers to me, “Don’t worry. It’s a great idea. I’ve got this.”

Because my brain is a lying bastard. It never remembers. Never. Oh, it remembers that I had an idea, and that it solved that sticky problem I was having, and that it was a beautiful, shining idea that would set animated animals to singing and dancing around me if I could only . . . remember . . . the actual content of the idea, and not that there was an idea. Of some sort. That was good.

Oh, well.

So I decided that I would keep a notepad next to my bed. One of those big, yellow legal pads, and a pen.

I need to back up for a moment to explain that I have this . . . medical condition called Recurrent Corneal Erosion. You can Google it if you wish, but suffice to say, it means that I have to put ointment in both eyes every night before sleeping or I have a very good chance of tearing the cornea of one or both eyes when I wake up in the morning. I’m not telling you this to squick you out or to elicit medical advice — believe me, if you can think it, it has already been thought by me or suggested by others. The ointment works great, usually about 99% of the time. About once per month or so, I’ll end up tearing a cornea and have to miss a day of work. It’s just . . . a thing that happens, and has been happening for the better part of twenty years. But my telling it serves to explain some of what is about to be related.

The ointment is thick and has the texture of petroleum jelly, and is opaque, so it impairs my vision almost completely. I can distinguish light from dark, and vague shapes. That’s about it.

I kept the notepad by the bed for quite a while. I’d wake up with a dream or an idea, and I’d write as much of it down as I could, but since I can’t actually focus my eyes on anything because of the ointment, my handwriting is . . . sub-optimal.

So I guess you could say it sort of worked. And as I got used to having the notepad next to the bed, I’d retain more dreams and ideas just long enough to jot something down before burrowing back under the covers and getting more sleep.

And then it happened.

I woke up out of a sound sleep. I had had an Idea. Not just an idea, mind you: An Idea. The best, shiniest, most magnificent Idea in the history of Ideas. It would make a fantastic story.

And it was so singular an Idea (to borrow vocabulary from H. P. Lovecraft) that a single word — as from the Oracle at Delphi — would suffice to remind me of the entirety of this beautiful, blossom-like Idea.

Squinting in the general direction of the notepad, brain clamoring for more sleep, I grabbed the pen and scribbled down this singular word that was absolutely sure to bring back the entirety of the Idea to me upon waking.

Smiling the smile of the satisfied, I put down the pen and the pad on my night table, put my head back on the pillow, and slept for several more hours, content in the knowledge that all was saved.

The alarm went off later that morning and I awoke, as usual, remembering that I had had An Idea. That it was a very, very excellent Idea, and that the story that would spring, Athena-like, wholly and beautifully formed from my mind upon seeing the word that appeared on the notepad would practically write itself because it was Just That Good.

I quickly stumbled into the bathroom and using a clean towel and warm water, cleaned the ointment out of my eyes, then hurried back into the bedroom.

I approached the table, giddy with anticipation. I could see that there was a single word on the pad, in crude, blue letters, blocky and spiky, diagonally scrawled across the yellow paper.

I picked it up.

I looked at it.

And thought, “What?”

The word that I wrote that night was this: SkullCosm

Just that. SkullCosm. Three syllables, capitalized exactly like that.

I sat heavily on the bed, wracking my brain. What could it mean? It was clearly some kind of cyberpunk thing, right? A cosm, or ‘world,’ inside a skull, or the mind.

But . . . I don’t read cyberpunk, or even much enjoy it. Much less write it.

Nothing. Not a single thing remained from that fantastic Idea I had but the single word I found scribbled in blue ink, as though written by someone not looking at the paper.

To this day, I have no clue. None. Zero. Zilch. The place in my brain which should be occupied by whatever marvelous Idea that, in a perfect world, would have been recalled in toto by the word SkullCosm has so far remained a void, filled only with the sound of a soul-crushing wind blowing through a desert of pain.

Well, that’s a little melodramatic, but you get my point.

I’ve carried the word around with me for years, now, playing around with it in my head, seeing if the shape of it fit any of the incomplete puzzles in my head. It’s never a good fit. The puzzle from which SkullCosm was left over was obviously constructed using non-Euclidean geometry.

I’ve tried on two occasions to force a story using SkullCosm as the seed word. To no avail. The non-Euclidean edges of the word are too hard to focus on clearly, and they keep causing the rest of the puzzle to warp and collapse.

In a last-ditch attempt to get some use of the word, I sent it to Len Peralta when he was doing his Monster By Mail campaign to raise money after the birth of one of their children. Just to see what an artist accustomed to drawing monsters would do with it.

I think he mistook ‘cosm’ for ‘plasm’ based on the picture I received back, shown above. But I like it, and it captures perfectly my frustration upon knowing that SkullCosm should but ultimately fails to trigger the memory of that perfect, shining story Idea that my brain cruelly forgot.

So if you ever see me mention the word SkullCosm, you’ll now know to what it refers.

  • Calendar

    April 2014
    M T W T F S S
    « Mar   May »