Because I tend to live in the moment, I forget that everything moves on, that change is inevitable, until something happens to make me realise I’ve been left behind. I’m not talking about technology here, though I’m always running to catch up with that. This time, I’m thinking about how we use words.
Okay, so that’s pretty much what my job is. Even when reading for relaxation, I find myself noting interesting phrasing. In particular, I love colloquialisms.
Growing up, I’m not sure I realised they existed. When inviting friends round, I’d say, ‘We’re having Mary for tea.’ with no comic intention. Maybe I was slow on the uptake, but it was years before I realised the correct reply to that was, ‘Roasted, boiled or fried?’
Oh, I knew that language had adapted, over time. The books I inherited, a wide selection of old poetry, novels and plays, were sometimes waded through with more determination than enjoyment.
“When will your hounds be going out again think ye, Mr Benjamin?” inquired Samuel Strong, a country servant of all work, lately arrived at Hanley Cross, as they sat round the saddle-room fire of the “Dragon Inn” yard, in company with the persons hereafter enumerated, the day after the run described in the last chapter.”
The humour of Handley Cross, by RS Surtees was far beyond me. It was not because the vocabulary was tricky, I understood most of the individual meanings, it was the syntax: the way the sentences were constructed. I have kept the book, and will try it again, one day.
The love poems of John Donne, 1572 – 1631, on the other hand, I went back to time after time. To read them was to be bathed in warmth. These scenes involved me. Sometimes through the use of familiar imagery:
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Or because he described emotion with such power that I was drawn to the idea of it. Passion oozed between his words, along with joy. What a wonder his love was, more powerful than sunbeams:
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
I found the language both archaic and invisible. We’ve ditched the ‘how dost thou?’ form of address, but the sun still rises, and love still happens, in blinding all absorbing beautiful moments that eclipse the universe. Did he imagine his words would not only be quoted, three hundred and eighty-five years later, but retain their ability to melt the reader or listener? I doubt it.
The trick is, that the readers every writer addresses are those in their present. To do that, it pays to use language that fits them. How many contemporary readers will be drawn in by a novel that begins:
My Lord of Tressain, his Majesty’s Seneschall of Dauphiny, sat at his ease, his purple doublet all undone, to yield greater freedom to his vast bulk, a yellow silken under-garment visible through the gap, as is visible the flesh of some fruit that, swollen with over-ripeness, has burst its skin.
Yet in 1909, when Rafael Sabatini wrote St Martin’s Summer, this wordiness was the accepted mode. His first chapter is littered with archaic words and phrases yonder, pish, quoth he, nevertheless and several people are ‘sent to the devil’, just in case we forget we’re in the seventeenth century. Today, we’re more likely to find this in parody.
Which isn’t such a bad thing. If you look at parody from the other side, isn’t it a form of compliment?
What’s my point with this ramble? Well, it occurs to me that one of the things I look for, when redrafting, is falling back into that antiquated way with sentences. I know I’m not alone in this, because there is a specific term for this tendency: it’s called overwriting.
My theory? It happens when I’m most self-conscious about the blankness of the page and thinking myself a writer. What I should be doing is following John Donne’s lead, and immersing myself in the story I want to share.