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Crossing the Wake – Elizabeth Wadsworth Ellis

Jun 11, 2021 | Non Fiction | 0 comments

When you waterski behind a speedboat you must cross the wake when the boat turns to keep the tow-rope taut. Were it to go slack you would sink. Crossing the wake on snowed-in streets on my bike is scary. Conversing, like crossing the wake, however frightened you are, is risky.
Language is a usage-tool, not a parlor game I play by myself. Words flow unimpeded when I’m walking down the street by myself, fluent when there’s no one to pressure me or challenge me to conjure the right word without consequence, for getting it wrong like the time that instead of pretty I told a lady her skirt was large.
Words hide like dust bunnies. “Words do not express thought very well, everything immediately becomes a little different, a little distorted, a little foolish.” [Hermann Hesse] Prince’s lyrics Sho’nuff do be cookin’ in my book “defy literal translation to my European friends,” Alain Norman told me.
The adults wondered how come these kids don’t want to go to camp? Words do not have the same meaning for everyone. In those kids’ history, camp is a refugee camp.
When the soccer players on the playing field across the street speak in Spanish or when my next-door neighbors speak in Hmong, language is the barrier, the constraint between us that restrains.
To a Native American theirs was not a reservation, but a nation; to American citizens of Japanese descent internment camps were concentration camps. In Japan, to ask for the bathroom means you want to bathe, not to use the restroom. Not all U.S. soldiers stationed overseas in Viet Nam were fluent in Vietnamese.
A deaf man I knew was required to carry pencil and paper to communicate. He was fluent in ALS, but we are not. Only those who swam in his school of fish knew it. His father refused to learn. Language, more than land and history, provides the essence of belonging—to be understood. [M. Ignatieff] Language can be of no value for its own sake, it is so only as it expresses the infinite moods and growth of humanity, R. Henri wrote. Stefan Klein of Germany wrote that the human need is to be understood.
A woman’s husband asked her to pick up the television. English was not his first language. Her husband wanted her to turn up the volume. “Never make fun of people who speak fractured English,” H. Jackson Browne wrote. “It means they speak another language.”
“That’s not it at all. That’s not what I mean at all,” T.S. Eliot wrote. “Language is based on trust,” K. Armstrong wrote, but to volunteer in the totalitarian regimes was not a free choice. It was mandatory, compulsory.
When she saw the sign posted on the enclosure that read “Long Fence”, a woman thought it meant, “Don’t even think about taking a short cut or cutting through. This is a l-o-n-g fence.” Long was the brand name.
It’s a simple trick to get people to talk, Lawrence Shames wrote. Stay silent.
Amy Tam says neurologic linguist programming tells us you are what you say.
“We’re going to the rec,” her kids said. Huh? How come they wanna go see a car wreck?  “What did you learn in school today?” a mom asked her kids. Cursive, they said. Cursing?!   Cursive was Palmer when she was in school. We teach our children words in a hurry for them to learn to talk to us; we abbreviate. Communication is mandatory as is language. “Perhaps it is language more than any other shackle that circumscribes our freedom in the family of man,” Freya Stark wrote.
Picture this Wat ad: Wedding gown for sale. Worn once by mistake.
Reading is the only writing teacher there is. That and writing. — Nelson Algren
“You’re not gonna write about me, are you?” my family asks. “Maybe,” but I never know some thread will prove useful at some time. “Words are my business,” Paul Theroux wrote, and his mission is the study of how people live. The dictionary is both yours and his toolbox. Some people keep a Bible on the nightstand. I keep a dictionary, always the best book to take on vacation.
“Ethnicity is language.” [S. Klein]
Simple words are best, George Orwell and Mark Twain agreed, and “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” A thesaurus provides the exact word, the right word for what you mean to say. Every word has an alter ego, a sibling, a roommate in the dictionary to explain its meaning.
“Writing is an attempt to get some control where there is no control.” — Pearl Cleage. I need analogies, metaphors, comparisons, and relative values; I need to see a word—spelled, even—to realize it.
Text is now a verb and sentences without verbs seem to be a current trend, a fad. We humans economize to conserve energy. However, we also exaggerate, emphasize, as if you won’t believe me if I don’t punch you in the gut. Adjectives are your enemies; they dilute and distract from the noun as if the noun isn’t good enough to stand on its own. Modifiers intend to sway, influence and persuade, lose meaning with overuse. Take them out to see if they’re necessary. Advertisers mark “Urgent!” with apostrophes as if we won’t buy without the modifiers—very extra special super or great—of emphasis added. Not everything has to be very. Applied to everything, extra strength becomes nothing and steals your attention like honking horns in traffic. Honking is not a proper form of speech, and exaggeration is the equivalent of cursing. Cursing is extreme emotion or displeasure; frustration [Lanier, J.] a plea for attention, a warning. Dr. Lewis Thomas tells us an exclamation mark is for those not present to hear the speaker scream. Its misuse in advertisement tells you what to do, what to buy. Instead of beginning a sentence with but, try “I did it, but.”
Repetition reinforces; however, using the same word can bore, can erode charm.
“It is speech that develops the brain and not the other way around.” — Brenda Ueland
Everything between commas should/must stand on its own and refer back. Commas in writing are not like the talking pause in speech. Substitute “if” for “when”. Test it. It works. “It’s easier to bear a thing if you write it down.” — V. Shalamov, Kolyma Tales
What is interesting, what isn’t, and when overwrought and overused it no longer has meaning; it’s wrung out. Use better than _____what. More than ____ what.
“I am always writing, even when I’m not facing the white space.” — Yosef Komunyaka
Any properly footnoted quotation of up to 500 sequential words may be used without permission as long as the total number of words doesn’t exceed 2,000. That’s industry standard.
A good writer is “determined by one’s sensibility, imagination, perspective, depth and the keenness of one’s insights, linguistic precision and eloquence.” — Stanley Crouch
“One of the nice things about being a writer is getting to know the people you write about.” — Thomas Hauser
“You don’t have to work at The New Yorker to write stories that move people; you can be at the smallest newspaper. The key is believing in yourself.” — Tom Hallman
Drummer Philip Hey said, “I’ll never be rich or famous, but I love what I do.”
The slant/underbelly of writer’s block is the woman who said, “I’m not gonna do the work, invest time and energy without some guarantee of publication.” Painters do portraits with a commission, established novelists with an advance. Another woman who writes for a living was asked if she kept a journal on her trip to Europe. “No. I get paid by the word!” she said. A writer not published is a person with a closet full of paper. Getting published gives credibility.
Four steps: Read. Research. Take notes. Idea jells. Winnow down the connecting thread; compose/check re-check for clunky chunky sentences. Frame your facts with who/what/when/where/why and how. Focus on one thing and all else around will join in to play.  Why do I get my best ideas in the shower? Einstein asked. My muse rides my bike.
Sprinkle clichés lightly. Metaphors are a sound technique of putting a different, but analogous connection that creates an “Ah-ha!” moment. Let the noun stand alone. Mark Twain advised when in doubt leave it out. Adverbs get ignored and distract from the verb.
When a writer has their character say, “I don’t know why I did but” you the reader know why: to advance the plot. They insulted you with a cheap ploy.
Careful with the use of I/me unless it’s a memoir. Claiming you/we/us could either include or exclude your reader. “An essay’s fundamental obligation is supposed to be to the reader.” — David Foster Wallace
We speak in shorthand; abbreviate, assume. An American diplomat once told me, Italicize foreign words with translation in parentheses. The first word wives of executives stationed in a foreign country want to know is gold. The first word you will want to learn in a foreign country is how to say “thank you”.  

*Wake: n. turbulence left by a vessel through water; aftermath, consequence

Elizabeth Wadsworth Ellis

Elizabeth Wadsworth Ellis

Words are Elizabeth’s doctrine; the library, her basilica.

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