Getting better at Language:
Last week I talked about sharing authentically from your heart, and some differences to think about between being a poet or musician and a novelist / screenwriter / actor.
When it comes to sharing your heart, you have to understand the language (context as well as tongue) that you’re writing for. So how do we get better at understanding the language of our medium and genre?
As with heart, more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to vocabulary, either. Still, the tools at your disposal should be as broad as possible. So the building block of language is vocabulary.
That’s an easy 5- minute exercise to come up with: Read through the dictionary for five minutes every Wednesday. Look at five words. Note the ones you didn’t know before and make a flashcard for each. Don’t assume you’ll really learn the new word without looking at it seven times.
But the bigger question is how to grow in your ability to understand the Language — that is the context of your medium and genre — so that you’re well prepared to write in that realm.
This points to an exercise that is a lot longer than five minutes. The only way to immerse yourself in the language of landscape painting, for example, is to look at a lot of great landscape paintings, preferably in person. The only way to immerse yourself in the language of mystery novels is to read a lot of them — and the best ones you can find.
I wrote a literary novel. My editor asked at one point whether I was trying to write the Great American novel, and I said, “why would I try to write anything else?”
Eco says that “When the writer (or the artist in general) says he has worked without giving any thought to the rules of the process, he simply means he was working without realizing he knew the rules. … Telling how you wrote something does not mean proving it is “well” written. Poe said that the effect of the work is one thing [heart] and the knowledge of the process is another.”
It’s also been said that while Joyce was writing long, flowery sentences, Twain used sentences such as “It was a man.” Part of using language effectively, both in the details of vocab selection and in the broader scope of speaking the language of the genre and medium, is to begin to walk unnoticed by the reader.
A popular Facebook meme says that you should never make fun of someone who speaks broken English — it means they know another language. At my son’s soccer games, the parents of Spanish-speaking families like to cheer for J.J., but they call him Yay-Yay. I love it, because I love that they root for my kid as well as their own, I see in this cheering the heart of a dad who wants all the boys to succeed. So the point is, when you’re not fluent in language it’s just going to be obvious. It doesn’t mean that you can’t write something with heart, so you shouldn’t stop writing any more than those dads should stop cheering. No! Keep going! In fact, it may give the writing a naive quality that somehow sings and may become considered great even if your language isn’t flawless. But on the other hand, fluency in context when you’re making something is worth working towards and attaining if you want to improve your abilities. Studying the language in terms of vocabulary is the building block, but reading the best literature in the category is understanding the culture that language fits into: and the best thing about this is to see how writers restrain themselves in terms of how they use the vocabulary they have, which certainly exceeds what they use: What you’re not saying is often more important than what you are saying.