Of Lightning and Lightning Bugs

English speakers are so fortunate to claim a language with more words than any other—nearly 200,000—but writers, does it ever feel as if you just can’t find that perfect word? For us, this has to be the ultimate existential crisis. As Mark Twain so aptly said: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

I’m forever seeking that elusive flash of light, but not just for the purposes of scintillating conversation. I primarily aim to bolster my battery of expression while writing. For example, although “cajole” or “coerce” will do just fine, isn’t a fresh verb such as “dragoon” much more fun?

Of course I love those word quiz books that promise to make us smarter. And I keep Roget’s Thesaurus nearby at all times. I’m also a huge fan of daily emails from Dictionary.com or Merriam-Webster, although they sometimes offer up tongue-twisters such as “phantasmagoric” (having a fantastic or deceptive appearance) that I’m not likely to ever use, except perhaps in a poem. Now there’s an idea!

What works best for me is to discover a new word conveniently within its own context, such as in a book by a favorite author. Works by newspaper columnists are particularly illuminating. Thanks to Tina Brown, a Cambridge educated editor and writer of books such as The Vanity Fair Diaries and The Palace Papers, words such as “farrago” and “miasma” float up regularly in my word soup. A new set of authors—Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes—has recently led me to discoveries such as “imbroglio,” “mien,” and “shambolic.” I make note of these words and their meanings and keep them handy as I write.

But there’s no inspiration like classic authors. After re-reading a little Henry James, I found myself surrounded by even more choices and unusual pairings. In Portrait of a Lady, James describes Isabel Archer’s ill-fated choice of Gilbert Osmond as a husband in this way: “She tasted of the sweets of this preference, and they made her conscious, almost with awe, of the invidious and remorseless tide of the charmed and possessed condition, great as was the traditional honor and imputed virtue of being in love.”

Invidious! Now this is a new word for me, and it means “likely to arouse or incur anger or resentment in others.” Having both a cat and a dog who can’t help annoying each other gives me plenty of opportunities to practice using both “invidious” and “remorseless.”

I would be remiss without including an example from Vladimir Nabokov, that famous polyglot and one of my most favorite writers. He not only drew from an enviable vocabulary spanning several languages, he was a master of description and metaphor. He opens his short story “Spring in Fialta” with some of the most beautiful prose ever written. (Read it online here). Later, in the same story, when describing an orchestra, Nabokov wrote: “First I noted the ostrich thigh of a harp….” I confess that I will drool over this delicious metaphor all day long.

I hope you’re inspired to assemble your own lexicon of new words. After all, we can’t wait around for lightning to strike. All good word warriors must be prepared to dazzle.

For more writing inspiration, check out my recent Women on Writing interview with my friend and mentor, the inimitable Ruth Moose.

Inspirations from a Quilt

What could be more soothing than the sound of the washing machine churning, churning, washing away….my dog’s tail thudding against the wall when he hears me walk back into the room…wind chimes, almost from another world, clanging in a gentle morning wind….and the touch of a new quilt, softened by the work and care of a dear friend.

Tquilt.jpgoday I reflect back on yesterday’s visit from my beloved writing friends Mary and Ruth, who came for lunch but brought a cornucopia of my favorite things  — a book of stories from Shirley Jackson, articles, their own precious stories, clean jars ready for canning, and the highlight– a beautiful quilt designed and hand-stitched by Mary herself.

I’m still both awed and humbled. It’s made from squares of heathered purple and accented with strips of beautiful complementary fabrics, modern and traditional with botanical accents. Each of the purple squares is accented with four French knots, which reminds me of my mother, who used to crewel and first showed me that stitch. Mary says the quilt is a marquis-inspired pattern and it is truly unique and something I will cherish to the end of my days.

Twenty-three days into May, and with 23 draft stories under my belt, I’m over the hump but I’m grateful for the inspiration and sustenance of the idea of a quilt. What powers our stories could be considered a “virtual quilt” of its own — memories, scraps of conversation, images, noble truths. What holds the quilt together is that dynamic, fluid, yet mysterious force of imagination. Your imagination will be there in the beginning, during the heady flush of a new idea — and it will also be there as you revise, in the days before a story truly comes to life.

Not all drafts are equal but I’m hopeful that I’ll end up with at least 10 viable drafts to revise throughout the year. More importantly, however, I hope to reinforce enough good habits to last a lifetime. As a reward, I plan to splurge on the last book of stories by William Trevor, a man who might indeed be the heir to our Chekhov. In the meantime, my new quilt and memories of yesterday shall guide my boat.