VIRAL OUTBREAK OVERTAKES LANGUAGE
Snap. Sweet. Dude. Whassup? Yada, yada, yada, blah, blah, blah. Anyhoo… Are you a victim of fadspeak, the contagion that paralyzes the tongue? It’s a strain of the virus that once had people mail-ordering chia pets and sea monkeys. Marked lethargy reduces the suffer’s capacity for language to a minor scale of bleats, hence the name of the condition—sheeple flu.
The virus invades the brain, causing dementia that presents as denial. What’s the harm in a few catchphrases? those afflicted with the disease have been known to ask. Then, as if yanking a pull string attached to their chests, from their mouths come a nonsensical sound. It’s the cancer of gimmickry talking. Their wits have atrophied into nonexistence.
“The epidemic is a travesty,” says Dr. Grahm Wordworthy, Director of Intelligence Services at the CDC. “And not only for the infected, but the noninfected, too. The ambient air has an unprecedented witless density, with mimicry claiming three new victims every hour.” Wordworthy’s CDC colleagues have studied rural and urban populations and compared their findings with an artist control group that displayed resistance to the virus. In a report published earlier this week, the two year program suggests that vulnerable persons might have microwaved one too many frozen dinners. The CDC is recommending that everyone crack open Bon Apetit to vitalize the gourmet palate.
THE FLASHÉ PHENOMENON
Flashés, or fadspeak—expressions that launch a thousand lips—attain clichédom at tongue-twisting speeds and are sealed and buried in time capsules equally fast. Similar to hair perms of the ‘80s, they have a flashbulb burst of popularity, with the resulting fumes of embarrassment lingering twice as long.
At the risk of causing offense, allow me this bluntness. Mimicry, dear friends, is lazy and dumb, two states of inertia that require an independent force to overcome. While the majority of individuals might not recognize fadspeak’s effect, the writer should—and soon will. Fill your mouth with someone else’s punchlines and your writing will read like yesterday’s joke. Feed on a diet of art and your creativity will blossom.
The Vaccination: Boycott anything that degrades language.
In writing, the laurel wreath goes not to the swift, but to the original. No one wants to read the same old, same old. Worn out phrases, plots, and characters lose their sensory components. The reader sees, hears, smells… a stereotype, not a vital and memorable individual, place, or event.
The words which in our language are worst off are the ones which are the worst-off used. Poverty and isolation produce impoverished and isolated minds, small vocabularies, a real but fickle passion for slang, most of which is like the stuff which Woolworths sells for ashtrays, word swung at randomly, wildly, as though one were clubbing rats, or words misused in an honest but hopeless attempt to make do, like attacking tins with toothpicks; there is a dominance of cliché and verbal stereotype, and abundance of expletives in stammer words: you know, man, like wow! neat, fabulous, far-out, sensaysh. I am firmly of the opinion that people who can’t speak have nothing to say. It’s one more thing we do to the poor, the deprived: cut out their tongues…allow them a language as lousy as their lives.
Samuel Johnson once told a writer, “Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.”
So What is Originality?
The dictionary defines originality as, simply, the “ability to think or express oneself in an independent and individual manner.” It could be said, then, that that which is original is—
- personal and unique
Originality is honest-to-goodness thought, the result of a writer’s labor to craft and communicate content. Our forerunners put it in these terms—
Genius, in truth, is little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way. —William James
Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber, but it’s that inescapable sorrowful depth that shines through—originality. —Jack Kerouac
Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself. —James Fitzjames Stephen
If you speak what you will never hear, if you can write what you will never read, you have done rare things. —Henry David Thoreau
The creative mind plays with the objects it loves. —Carl Gustav Jung
The Bible says there’s nothing new under the sun. For writers, this is paradoxical—originality is derivative.
No one will come up with a new story, according to J.R.R. Tolkein. We are mere subcreators, he explained, and “new” exists only as a twist on the old, with the writer ever borrowing from ancient manuscripts. In other words, we don’t have to come up with the concepts of love and hate. We only have to rewrite them.
For Flaubert, style was the observing of detail and drawing for the reader a picture in words. The great short story writer de Maupassant received a famous piece of advice from him that has influenced many writers, including London, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. De Maupassant explained—
…we have fallen into the habit of remembering, whenever we use our eyes, what people before us have thought of the thing we are looking at. Even the slightest thing contains a little that is unknown. We must find it. To describe a blazing fire or a tree in a plain, we must remain before that fire or tree until they no longer resemble for us any other tree or any other fire.
“That is the way to become original.”
After repeating over and over again this truth, that there are not in the entire world two grains of sand, two hands or noses that are absolutely the same, Flaubert made me describe in a few sentences, a being or an object in such a way as to particularize it clearly, to distinguish it from all the other beings or all the other objects of the same race or kind.
“When you pass a grocer sitting in his doorway,” Flaubert used to say, “or a concierge smoking his pipe, or a cab-stand, show me that grocer or that concierge, the way they are sitting or standing, their entire physical appearance, making it by the skillfulness of your portrayal embody all their moral nature as well, so that I cannot confuse them with any other grocer or any other concierge. And make me see, by means of a single word, wherein one cab-horse does not resemble the fifty others ahead of it or behind it.
Being original means finding new slants, choosing overlooked details, testing creative leads and formats, weilding surprising conclusions. It means, or requires, a different way of looking at what has been taking place all around us for epochs.
Many renowned works of art are heralded for the way they moved their genre forward. Think of how Citizen Kane pushed the boundaries of the screenplay and camera angles compared to the films of its time.
Originality challenges convention. Write a feature article as if it was a newscast or from a surprising point of view… a celebrity bio as seen through the eyes of his or her child.
Originality involves risk—somewhat blind faith. But what choice does the writer have? Without originality, he or she regurgitates formulas and platitudes, mouthfuls of fluff.
Every line, every word you write is an opportunity to exercise your art. Sure, you could embarrass yourself. Then again, you could find your voice, your style, your genius. Take risks. Startle your readers with shocking leads and unusual metaphors. Don’t shy away from flowery prose that later might make you blush. Mix the plaids with the stripes. This isn’t the spoken word. You can retract from the silent page. You can and will come back to revise what doesn’t work.
In the second and third drafts, cut the inappropriate and distracting. No one need know how far out on the limb you crept. If you’re overly cautious, though, no one will ever see the panorama from the height of your limb. You have to risk buffoonery to say something that hasn’t been said a million times before.
Original writing jump off the page. Descriptions have the reader shouting yes, though he or she had never encountered that familiar thing depicted in such a way.
Review your manuscript. Ask of every sentence: Is this unique? Is there a more original way to say it? Watch for clichés and “word packages”. I walked two long blocks, for example, is both a cliché and a word package. The writer thinks he’s portraying an ordeal, but aren’t your ears dulled to long days, long hours, etc.? Once upon a time this expression was a fresh oxymoron.Today it amounts to wordiness.
Other word packages include “by all rights” or “I felt curiously tired.” Familiarity has made these impotent. As mentioned in the section on wordiness, first drafts don’t have to smell fresh, but final drafts do. When you revise your work, delete or rewrite meanless phrases.
The key to originality is to stop and think, let your mind go. Off the top of your heading writing might include the line: “A burly policeman came to the door.” Not all police officer are created equal, though. Think through the lineage of Literary and TV characters. There’s Barney Fife, Barney Miller, Sam Spade, Dirty Harry, Pepper Anderson, Kojak, Columbo, Inspector Clouseau…. Must the officer at the door be burly? What if he stood chest-high and was a sixty-something year old woman with an obvious wig tucked under her blue cap? Then again, the scene might call for physical intimidation.
As the scene’s creator, what do you envision when you write “burly”? Walk to the door. Open it. Take it all in. Feel the intimidation. Smell the man in the police uniform. What visually sets him apart from every other officer in the city? Is he a Jimmy McNulty clone? Does burly best describe him? Is he wearing a wedding ring… eyeglasses? Maybe he has red hair and freckles. What is he like off-duty? How would he dress? Now put him back in the uniform. Describe what you see.
Perhaps you’re writing about a teenager who finds a duffle bag of money at the beach. On autopilot, you make it a sunny day with the smell of salt in the air and waves rushing a pristine shoreline. But not every day at the beach lives up to the stock description. Occasionally it rains, and the air smells like sewage. Sometimes the shore is strewn with refuse of the despicable kind.
It’s fine to write about a sunny day at the beach. Make sure, though, that it’s your blue sky and your salty breeze. The point is to think. To imagine. Create. Don’t mimic the familiar. Experience every detail of your story.
The same applies to nonfiction. Even though you may have seen or experienced what you’re writing about, it’s easy to grab the first stock description that comes to mind. Instead of depicting what you see, think about how you see it. Unless you pause to make your own observations, you will default to someone else’s.
Correct writing isn’t enough. Pretty writing isn’t enough. You have to take your readers unaware. Provoke them. Astonish them. Give them something to remember.
- Think of three uses for a coat hanger on a golf course.
- Think of a way to feed your dog when he’s alone in the house for two days.
- Think of five more exercises like the two above.
- In 250 words, describe the inside of a Ping-Pong ball.
- Find something you wrote before and change every adjective and verb.