I can hear my son, Logan, shouting “Don’t say stupid!” in my head as I type this. That might be the most important thing he’s taken away from my 3.5 years of parenting him. Don’t say stupid. You see, I am a potty mouth, and somehow Logan has only managed to pick out the word stupid from among the myriad creative ways I have found to swear or say otherwise nasty things in his presence. (No, I am not a perfect parent, or a perfect person by any stretch of the imagination, and if there is one absolutely terrible parenting faux pas that I have committed, it is swearing in front of my son.) Stupid is the only word he has repeated. I taught him that word is forbidden after he called his friend stupid. So he reminds me. Every single time I say it. Because for him, we live in a black and white world, words have good meanings and bad meanings and if he shouldn’t say stupid, then darn it, nobody else should.
That’s the way it should be. As one of my favorite characters, the eponymous character Angel, once said, “We live as if the world is what it should be to show it what it can be.” Except, that’s sort of impossible. We can’t live in a world where we react to things as though evil and good were very easily divided into their corners because the grey areas are where the conflict lives and where the interesting essence of a story can be found. There are great mountains of complexity to be found in the space between good and bad and that is more than enough to make people’s head spin. Your reader can be entranced and confused and compelled by what you write because of that alone.
You don’t need extremely complex verbiage to do that work for you. And despite what E.L. James may have taught you with “50 Shades of Grey”, you do not need to chew, swallow then vomit a thesaurus up to do so, either. (I know I pick on her far too much, but all I can think of upon examining her work is a very enthusiastic and, still simplistic, “ARGH.” The occasional book reviewer in me cringes.)
Watching Logan grow up and develop language of his own has provided me with an opportunity. As he struggles to define and understand new words, I also struggle to put my own thoughts into words that he can understand. If one fact can be distilled from that experience, it would be that language is important. You may be thinking, “No s&^t, Sherlock!” And to that I can only reply, “Told you about my potty mouth.”
Logan is not only constantly in search of the right words, but I’m always constantly in search of language economy – a way to explain my ideas in simple, effective sentences that are not ridiculously verbose. Logan is also a hyper child, and when I try to explain things in roving, complicated sentences, he reacts by walking away from me. Which is what readers often do if you present them with long, twisty sentences that look like a paragraph when you really could have said it in one line.
Oddly, my use of twitter has taught me something similar. If you look at my twitter account, it is filled with #WIPquotes, or, quotes from my works in progress. These usually get posted as I’m writing my story. I write a line, I like it, I tweet it. But often times, the line does not fit in the tweet. Since I like to share, I really want to make that line tweetable. (Language can also be invented – tweetable?) So I will try to find better words to streamline the sentence, and in that way, most times, I make the line stronger.
It’s true, that talking to Logan usually means simplifying too much, unless I want to spend the next hour explaining the words that explain the words that explain the words, etc., etc., etc. But the idea that sometimes the simplest explanation, the simplest phraseology, the simplest term, can often be the best is something that is often tossed aside in the pursuit of “prettier” language.
Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule – there are always reasons to go for the more complex terms, the more interesting turn of phrase. The idea is always to strike a balance between the two so that your work becomes more well rounded and not too bogged down.
Any thoughts on this topic? To any of my writer mothers out there – Any fun things you have learned about your work from your children? Share!