Monday, January 27, 2014

Soulever: An Everyday Epiphany About Word Love

This morning I had a bit of an epiphany as I got out a tissue to blow my nose. 

That’s not what you expected to read, was it?

Let me see if you can figure out why.  Here’s a picture of what stopped me dead and turned on that light bulb in my brain. 

Yes, that is a picture of a nearly empty travel-pack of tissues.  But it isn’t the fascination that the sunlight’s glint off the rumpled plastic provides, or some metaphor for desolation, or even a nascent comment about the current weather situation that caught my eye.  It is the words “soulever” and “lift” that stopped me in my morning tracks.

Now, I have seen this word combination hundreds of times since I started carrying around that brand of travel tissues, and it always gave me pause, but this morning I figured out why.  (Isn’t that a great feeling?  Like solving a philosophical puzzle.)

The word “soulever” means “lift” in French.  (My high school French teacher would be proud to know that I remembered that.) But more important to this moment of clarity was the look of the word “soulever” in conjunction with the word “lift”.  Soulever. Soul. Lever.  Lift.  Soul lever – lifting souls.  It was love at 245th sight.

I’m a logophile.  I’ll be right up front about it.  I love words.  Some might call me a word nerd.  In fact, my love of words has formed one of the most consistent patterns through my life.  From the sixth grade until last week, I have heard exclaimed, celebrated, muttered, and wondered regularly, “You use a lot of big words, don’t you?”

Yes.  Yes, I do.  But I don’t do it for the love of 50-cent words or the cachet it brings when others might hear me using them.  I don’t even use them with the intention of teaching others to use them.  I use them because they are the RIGHT word for the right time. 

 This might have gained me some notoriety in high school.  I’m not saying it was good notoriety, just notoriety. 
By the way, I really did like the challenge of diagramming sentences because I like that words could change their purpose in relation to other words.  Kind of how math whizzes like to solve math problems.  It’s weird, but I can live with that.  What I cannot live with is the misspelling of the word “Diagramming” THREE TIMES (!!!) in the blurb of this picture.  My heart wants to believe that it was an intentional misspelling, meant to gently prod the subject of the photo into a freak-out.  My life is spiced with ironies such as this.

Ever since I began to read and notice how words met needs for me – to say in glorious rhetoric, to escape to in fantastical books, to read, to plead my case fervently, to illuminate the dark corners of a conversation, to wrench pangs of emotion from hardened hearts and lift souls to soaring heights – I have been in love with their power. 

I love how they break apart and come together in new ways.  They evolve, because language is a living thing. I love how you can create words in the moment you need them, to mean exactly what you mean, and then that becomes a real thing.  (Admittedly, this doesn’t always catch on.  “Stop trying to make “fetch” happen!”)

But not just any old words.  No.  It has to be the right word for the right time.  I love that in the Inuit language of Native Alaskans, they have six different words for snow.  Think about it.  You can describe at LEAST six different kinds of snow that you’ve seen just in the last week if you live in Illinois. Because of the current limitations of the English language, we have to expend a lot of verbiage to make that distinction precisely.  If we adopted those Inuit words, we’d just be able to use one word – the right word.

That is my obsession.  A scant two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to join a merry band of other wordsmiths and storytellers on a weekend writer’s retreat in the tiny historical village of Bishop Hill, Illinois, hosted by renowned storyteller and performer Brian ‘Fox’ Ellis and his lovely partner, Kim Thrush at their exquisite bed & breakfast, The Twinflower Inn.  At this retreat, we were lucky enough to meet working writers, editors, and performers like Barry Cloyd.  Barry is a marvelous musician (and so much more), but he conducted a short workshop on song-writing that really stuck with me.

You should know that I love to sing, but I have not really considered myself a musician because I don’t read music, nor do I play any instrument.  (A regret I have time to rectify before I die.)  But I stuck around just to hear the other participants and their contributions.  While I’m still in the dark about the creation and scribing of notes, the creation of lyrics was a revelation to me.  We sat around that room, Barry and Buck Creasy strumming their guitars, the rest of us with eager ears and minds, and we created the bridge to a new song together. 

Barry talked about hearing a phrase that screams out for its song to be sung – for me, it’s the phrase that screams out for its tale to be told.  To my surprise, when put on the spot, I had crowds of words rushing to be noticed, but I had to be careful to pick the right ones – my mania.  Turns out, the right ones happened to be “sugar-dipped lies”.  That set us on a course where we hacked out each phrase until a story developed, and then we whittled some more.  It was nearly a conversation between the story and the rhythm that built every time we found the exact word that worked.  If we didn’t find the right word, Barry could put in a placeholder phrase, and move on.  Me, I was stuck until I found the right words to fill the phrase and tell the story.  Even today, I’m still trying to fill that phrase perfectly to tell the story of that woman who “transformed him with soft words” and told no “sugar-dipped lies”.

As a teacher, this lends itself to raising the level of rhetoric in my classroom.  My students know I know words.  I know how to spell them.  I know how to uncover the right words to use to paint that perfect picture of a moment with them.  I do not talk down or dumb down my conciseness with them.  In fact, I’m ecstatic whenever they stop me to ask what a word means.  I share my passion with them without giving it great thought, because it is who I am.

I urge them to “find better, more precise words” for what they really mean in their own writing.   “Good” “Bad” “Angry” and “Sad” are threadbare with their overuse by this time in their writing careers – and I remind them that they do not lend the master’s touch to the picture they are painting with their words.  It’s the difference between paint by numbers and Monet – those word choices. I urge them to seek out, discover and appreciate new words in their reading. 

As a writer, this can be an advantage or an obstacle, depending on the timing of its intrusion.  If the right word presents itself without a struggle, it can make drafting a glorious success.  If it doesn’t come so easily, it can make the drafting process a terrible slog through muddy swamp if you don’t find ways to let go and come back later in revisions.  Alas, it is a struggle for my obsession to let go and come back later.  It doesn’t want to leave the right word unwritten – that lever that may lift a reader’s soul to the heavens.  Soulever.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Bridging the Distance

I'm just going to warn you that while this is a true story, I will admit to having a fertile imagination and a patchy memory.  If any blanks were filled in wrongly, it is going to be called "author's license" for the purposes of this blog post.  ~Jess

Bridging the Distance

            We always travelled at night.
            He’d go 24 or 36 hours without sleep, just so he could eke out a few more hours to visit with us.  He was gone from our day-to-day, but when he came to fetch my sister and I once, maybe twice, a year from our mother’s house, it was the launch of an odyssey. It was in transit that I grew to know the very best of my father.
            I was eleven years old on this night’s bumpy trip down old 51 South, a collapsing vein running from the heart to the foot of Illinois.  My sister was already asleep, crammed like crumpled paper in a sixth graders locker in the virtually non-existent backseat of the Porsche.  Such is the tragedy of being the lone early-riser in a car full of night owls.  He’d only bought sports cars since the divorce – meant for speed and pleasure in driving, a necessity for the man who travelled hundreds of miles each week. No matter, the Porsche would take us swiftly to Grandma’s house, speeding encapsulated in this suspended time between.  It devoured the miles, and the tires kissing the road produced a comforting susurration like a cat’s purr.
            The first hour of our isolation was spent in awkward silence as I gazed out the window in the cool March rain-damp night.  We were like two strangers captured in a coffee-scented cage and forced to act as though we knew one another.  He’d been gone for three years, and the occasional phone calls and long-distance daddy-ing hadn’t made up for the stomach-clenching agony of watching him drive away from our home, from us, for good.  The wall between us had been built by false hugs and missed phone calls and one too many explanations from my mom about why he had to miss his visit with us…again.  It was built so high I couldn’t see over it, and he couldn’t understand why it was there.
            His wide hands handled the wheel capably, confidently, through a rainstorm.  Changing lanes brought with it the bump of the tall metal thermos of coffee that kept his travel cup perpetually filled rolling near my feet.  He slipped a cassette tape into the player and old episodes of The Prairie Home Companion began to play with their old-timey music, bluegrass bands, and radio stories all shepherded by the mellifluous deep baritone of Garrison Keillor.  As he began The News From Lake Wobegon, I snuggled into the bucket seat and listened not just to his words but also to the rise and fall of his voice, vibrating in the center of my chest like a French horn.  By the time side A was over I had finally relaxed. Dad turned the tape over in the player and used the sudden return to chilly silence to send another ladder up the invisible wall.
            “You know who was a great storyteller?” he asked.
            “Your grandma.  And your great-grandmother Burnam, too.  She could tell a story that would make your hair stand on end one minute, then have you peeing your pants with laughter the next.”
            “Oh, yeah? Huh.”  Just because he wanted to reconnect didn’t mean I was opening the door from my side. 
            “Yeah.  She used to keep us all in stitches when we were kids, telling us tales about her family and the old place in West Frankfort.”
            “Uh-huh.”  He was losing me, seeking blindly through the dark for a cord that would pull me back to be his daughter again.
            “She used to tell this one story about your great-great grandmother Lillian Horrell and the big ole bull, Too-Tall.  Did I ever tell you that story?”
            “No.”  I hesitated, but dangit, he had me hooked now.  “What bull?”
            It was in the telling of that story that I heard in my father’s voice the rise and fall, ebb and flow of words that invited me to laugh and gasp alongside the adventures of tiny, fiery farmwife, Lillian Horrell.  She belonged to my dad, and he was gifting her story to me.  Now, she belonged to me, too.  We shared her legacy, this red-haired, sharp-witted sprite of a woman who beat down an angry bull to rescue her husband and could play three instruments but couldn’t hold a tune while she sang if you put it in a bucket for her.  His obvious pride in her warmed me.  Maybe I could live a life that interesting, too.  Maybe I could be the one he told stories about someday.
            After Lillian, he moved onto stories about her younger brothers.  In the midst of a story about a ne’er-do-well great-great Uncle Ellis who got so drunk before he pitched a minor league baseball game that he nearly killed a man with his wild pitches, we hit a pothole.  That wasn’t unusual on old 51, but this was enough to make my usually sure-handed dad swerve out of his lane and curse under his breath at the uselessness of Illinois road construction projects. 
            “They don’t even know how to put a road together!  I’ll bet you know more about making a road than they do!”
            “Probably.” I replied, wanting to get back to the stories.
            “Oh, you do, do you?” he challenged slyly.  So, I proceeded to tell him exactly how roads were built, step by step.  He was dumbfounded.
            “Where did you learn that?”  I silently struggled with how to answer.  “At school?”
            I took a deep breath.
            “Nowhere.  I just made it up.”  I admitted a little proudly.  He wasn’t the only one who could tell a story.  He burst into a belly laugh that broke down the last of that invisible wall that night.
            The next bathroom stop, he would dig into his briefcase to gift me with my very first yellow legal pad and special pen, intended just for writing down stories.
            “You need to start writing these stories you hear down so you don’t forget them.”
            With those words, he invited me not just to enjoy his stories, but to become a member of the storytelling brotherhood with him.  It made me feel important.  It empowered me to become as adventurous and memorable as Lillian Horrell and Too-Tall the Bull.   It gave me reason to believe he was proud and that we weren’t so far apart after all.