Words fail me

Perhaps then one reason why we have no great poet, novelist or critic writing today is that we refuse to allow words their liberty. We pin them down to one meaning, their useful meaning. A meaning which makes us catch the train, the meaning which makes us pass the examination. —Virginia Woolf

I would love to make some experience for the reader that entails the words and could not be made with other words, but that is much more, and other, than what the words are. And I would love to make some experience that creates all kinds of reverberations between different elements. —Deborah Eisenberg

Words, words, words. I’m so sick of words! —Eliza Doolittle, My Fair Lady

A musician has notes. An artist uses shapes and colors and lines. A dancer utilizes movement. A fiction writer is more impoverished than these, because he only has words. And words weren’t invented for creative purposes. They were invented for practical matters of survival. Writers then co-opted them. And because of that, writers struggle the way other creatives do not.

Writers are limited by extant vocabulary, unless one invents new words and they stick, which rarely happens. So we are stuck with the bricks and mortars of banking and law and science, the things words were originally created for. The first written communications that survive are notices of debt and proclamations from leaders. Language was not invented so that some poet could write about journeys to far-away places, or ballads of lost loves. No, words originally were utilitarian.

Because of that, we have a wealth of words for precise concepts. Science never has to grope for new ways to measure, define, analyze, at least till we get to infinity, where math as we know it breaks down and even Einstein scratched his curly head. There are precise “terms of art” in law. Contracts may sometimes be vague, but that’s only because they were not properly written.

But the lowly fiction writer has to struggle when his universe turns to the emotional, the impressionistic. I think of the way the Inuit are said to have many different words for what we of more temperate climates just call “snow.” To them it isn’t just one “thing.” One sort of snow is so different—and the difference so important from—another type, that they invent whole new words, whole new intellectual concepts. for it.

After you write fiction for a while, you begin to tire of so many of the same words. He said. She laughed. Suddenly he thought. She felt sad. They were elated. He was in love with her. 

How often it is that for the writer, those words just don’t do. They don’t describe enough. We attach adverbs and adjectives, but that just makes the prose clunkier—and quickly these new words get overworked as well. Therefore my character laughs. He may laugh ten times in my story, but each time it is subtly different. Yet I am caged by the word laughed, and a few overused others: chuckled, chortled, snickered. How the Inuit would feel if he were confined to four words for now—which would be plenty in all likelihood for a desert sweller. For a writer, a fiction writer, a fiction writer who wants his readers to feel his unique emotions, the paltry words we have at our disposal often are frustratingly limited. I just smiled. But not in a way I’ve yet smiled today. What kind of smile was it? Was it a “knowing” smile? A “mirthful” smile? “Sardonic”? “Bitter”? “Amused”? After looking up every kind of smile one could have, I find there still isn’t a word that quite describes mine. I choose what I think is the best, though I may change my mind when I review the passage tomorrow. A scientist never has to worry if his words properly describe a newly-found star. A banker never need sweat that there aren’t exactly the right sentences to create a car loan. Did you ever see one with his head in hand saying, “I can’t find the right words to write up the financing for this BMW”? We have plenty of words for exacts. It’s ephemeral emotions, thoughts that don’t conveniently fit into our rigid definitions, that suffer.

Daisy looked at Tom frowning and an indefinable expression, at once definitely unfamiliar and vaguely-recognizable, as if I had only heard it described in words, passed over Gatsby’s face. I can imagine Fitzgerald struggling to find the perfect words while writing The Great Gatsby, then finally settling for that unsatisfactory sentence. So often we have to resort to phrases I hate, saying something was indescribable, vaguely-familiar, was both this and that. “Majesty and opacity” are often use to describe Bach’s Fourth Solo Cello Suite, BWV 1010. But then that describes the Largo of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony too, does it not? And wouldn’t it also precisely nail the finale of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony? Yet these three works couldn’t be more different from one another.

Here’s a test: the next time you wake from a dream, describe it to a friend. Then notice how poorly the words you use really convey the uniqueness, the flavor, of your experience. Your dream is as real to your mind as the deed to your house, but the words you have at your disposal to describe it are poor, inadequate, because they weren’t really made for that sort of communication. They’re borrowed. And as is true with many borrowed items, while they’re better than nothing at all, they don’t really work.

Some writers have tried heroically to break the bonds of precise, finite words and rule-bound sentence construction. They’re the avant-garde in literature, trying to do what a Jackson Pollock or a Pablo Picasso did with images, what a John Coltrane or an Anton Webern did for music. But with their art you can bend, extend, distort, reform. To some extent that’s true in literature too, but ultimately you have to contend with discreet building blocks—words—and the fact that they must carry some concrete meaning, especially when you start stringing them together in long chains. Ultimately tones of sound don’t have to mean anything, or the meaning can be multiple and/or ambiguous. To some extent of course that’s true with literature too, but past a point literature is irreducible. I can’t tear words apart—blu ackn vol mer ing fes poly ming vi supplem grif—and say I have new meaning. There’s a depth past which I cannot burrow.

So I’m stuck with using a system of communication not intended for me. Think of how many times you’ve said something like, “I can’t describe it. You have to hear it or see it.” Ever hear someone say, “You can’t listen to it. I have to write it out for you”? Leonard Bernstein talked about this way back in 1959, when for an Omnibus television program he called “The Infinite Variety of Music,” he discussed how music can be strung together so that even with just 12 notes repeated higher and lower you can create endless compositions, while a writer with only 12 words would soon be at his wits’ end. He was right. Or perhaps the oft-heard quote “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” sums it up rather nicely.

And if it doesn’t, it’s the best I can do with the tools a bunch of bankers and lawyers handed me.


5 responses

  1. Hi John,

    I think this is a brilliant piece of writing, even with the limitations you talk about so eloquently. In my humble opinion you may want to submit this to a paying market that may garner a bigger audience. Just a thought…. Unfortunately, I don’t know who that might be. Though I think this is every bit as good as pieces I read on Salon or in the New Yorker. All that to say, I think you have a gift for this kind of thing.

    Meanwhile, I totally agree with what you’re saying. I feel these limitations all the time as I try to bridge the gap between word and image. Always a challenge. But a challenge I try to live up to every day. Thanks for this post, John. Great job.



    October 31, 2011 at 9:35 am

    • Thanks.


      October 31, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    • Maureen Owen

      I agree w/your first poster. This could easily be something in a literate magazine, assuming there are some still around. The New Yorker, maybe, or Vanity Fair or The Atlantic.


      October 31, 2011 at 9:29 pm

  2. Carl Tait

    Nice piece! Reminds me of that T.S. Eliot quote from “East Coker”:

    … every attempt
    Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
    Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
    For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
    One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
    Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate


    November 3, 2012 at 8:51 pm

  3. Ed Boydston

    One recalls a line penned by Mr. Gustave Flaubert (not a bad writer, I believe it’s generally agreed): “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”


    July 25, 2014 at 7:58 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s