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.
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.