February 24, 2014

A Canuck in Kantuck: Language to love

By Tara Kaprowy

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — For more than a year now, I’ve been writing a book. It’s a novel, really, and it’s been my hardest project to date. Each morning, I get to my computer, sit down and have to fight the urge to get back up and do something else. Anything else. Laundry? It’s calling, isn’t it? Dishes? How can I write before the kitchen is clean? Does that plant need more water?

Sitting down to write, at least for me, is painful every time I do it. A gargantuan lump of self-doubt sits on each one of those first words, so that they need to be pulled and prodded out, all of them begging to be deleted, insisting they are unnecessary or trite, asking why in the heck I think I’m qualified to use them.

As the morning progresses and the work starts to accumulate, the weight lifts slightly, sitting only on every third word, then maybe every seventh or tenth. But the next morning, it’s back, just as heavy as before.

In his book on writing, Stephen King talks about the thrill and excitement writing provides for him. For me, it’s never been that way. It’s something I’m often pleased about once it’s over, but the process itself can only be described as labor intensive. Something I force myself to do, I suppose am compelled to do since I’ve done it nearly every day for the past 14 years, but not something I would ever say is the ultimate high.

To me, the most beautiful writing is when words you’ve used your whole life are put together so you see truth in a new way. Alice Munro (first Canadian woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, plug, plug) is amazing at this. Take this example: “All the dingy-looking little trees in the park came out in bloom. Their flowers were a bright pink, like artificially colored popcorn.”

Likening petals to popcorn? Brilliant. You’ve been staring at those pink flowers your whole life and yet you never realized how popcorny they are. But they are. How could you have never seen that before? In an instant, reinvention. So true. And you come away with it changed, charmed, inspired.

In trying to create similar (admittedly, inferior) similes and other tropes, it’s made me realize how creatively and accurately we use language on a daily basis. Take the expression “heart sank,” as in “Disappointed, her heart sank.”

No self-respecting writer would use this expression now — long ago, time wore off its original edges and now it’s just considered trite, if it’s noticed at all. But when you’re upset? Guess what? You can feel your heart descend with disappointment. Conversely, if you’re excited or startled, your heart feels like it jumps.

“Dive in,” that’s another one. How interesting to think we regularly say we’re going to dive into our work as if swimmers diving into an ocean. When you reexamine it, what a beautiful way to think about it.

“Tough nut to crack,” also cool. I have one character in my book who really is hard to get to know. “How can I describe this?” I thought one painful morning. Oh wait, the perfect expression already exists, one so commonplace often it’s shortened to “tough nut.”

“Naked truth,” love that one. “Paled in comparison.” “Bone chilling.” Wonderful, wonderful.

Of course, my “job” for more than a year has been to come up with new ways of describing, rather than rely on what already exists. But along the way, I’ve gotten little, pleasant breaks from the work by re-enjoying the language that surrounds us every day. And that makes sitting down each morning a little easier.