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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pat Conroy on words.

    Because I was raised Roman Catholic, I never feared taking any unchaperoned walks through the fields of language. Words lifted me up and filled me with pleasure. I’ve never met a word I was afraid of, just ones that left me indifferent or that I knew I wouldn’t ever put to use. When reading a book, I’ll encounter words that please me, goad me into action, make me want to sing a song. I dislike pretentious words, those highfalutin ones with a trust fund and an Ivy League education. Often they were stillborn in the minds of academics, critics, scientists. They have a tendency to flash their warning lights in the middle of a good sentence. In literary criticism my eye has fallen on such gelatinous piles as “antonomasia,” “litotes,” or “enallage.” 
     I’ve no idea what those words mean nor how to pronounce them nor any desire to look them up. But whenever I read I’ll encounter forgotten words that come back to me like old friends who’ve returned from long voyages to bring me news of the world. Often, I’ll begin my writing day by reading those words in the notebooks I keep with such haphazard consistency. Though I’m an erratic journal keeper, I admire the art form well enough to wish I’d had the discipline to master that sideshow of the writer’s craft. I lose most of the world around me when I fail to record entries in those notebooks that line my shelves.
     I could build a castle from the words I steal from books I cherish. Here’s a list I culled from a book I read long ago—“sanction,” “outlaw,” “suburbia,” “lamentations,” “corolla,” “debris,” and “periodic table.” I can shake that fistful of words and jump-start a sentence that could send me on my way toward a new book. But if I go forward a single page I can listen to a different reading self who cherry-picked words from another book and recorded “atlas,” “villainy,” “candelabra,” “tango.” Each file of words seems outfitted for a different story or novel. I hunt down words that have my initials branded on their flanks. If I take the time to write one down I want to get it right every time I form a sentence. I’ve known dozens of writers who fear the pitfalls and fastnesses of the language they write in and the glossy mess of the humanity they describe. Yes, humanity is a mess and it takes the immensity of a coiled and supple language to do it justice. Writing is the only way I have to explain my own life to myself. I’ve amassed a stockpile of books in vaults and storage bins in attics and unfinished basements and tortoiseshell-colored boxes that I raid with willful abandon when I try to fix a sentence on a page. Words call out my name when I need them to make something worthy out of language.
—from My Reading Life

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