When Writers Hate Words and Painters Hate Paint
I adore words. Words have been my dearest medium since my childhood in a Welsh home where the English language was king and queen. I can hear words as if they are being spoken in my ear as I read them on the page or computer screen. I swear I can taste them. If I don’t read a minimum of a few thousand of them in books every day I am fidgety and dissatisfied.
I study words assiduously and they float in my mind because they are the building blocks from which a writer fashions images, ideas, and narratives. I want to know all of them and use them in my work when I need them. The more of them I can use intelligently the more ideas and emotions I will be able to communicate. Writers cannot pour the whole of their talent into their work without a storehouse of expressive language at their ready disposal.
The vocabulary in the piece may be as simple as Ernest Hemingway’s or as complex as William Faulkner’s. Either way, each word, doing its part, must have zest. If you lack the one and only “just right” word you cannot adequately convey the emotion and its shadings, or the expression on a face as it differs in daylight or at midnight, or a beach at dawn.
What can be more painfully frustrating and galling for writers who take their work seriously than sensing there is a word that will express precisely what they want to express, but not being able to think of it and having to settle for a second, third, or fourth best word?
I maintain on shelves massive loose-leaf notebooks with bright red, orange, and yellow covers. In them I enter words I come across that I think I might wish to use at some time that I don’t currently know or do know but don’t use. The notebooks are filled with many thousands of good, useful words and brief definitions and ideas for using them.
I consult these notebooks regularly. When I begin writing something substantial I jot down many interesting and lively–“good”–words that I will work into the text. I might write down in the notebook the word “irascible” with the note–“a nice, strong, dramatic word to use,” or other nice words, “pallid,” “stipulated,” and “rapture.”
But never knowing why and never knowing when, I experience a mystifying writer’s block you’ve never heard of that overwhelms me. I’ve never heard anyone else say a word about it, nor have I read about anything like it. I’d like to tell you about it now.
It is a periodic aversion to the basis of the creators’ medium–words to writers, color and paint to painters, and music to composers. Such an intermittent malady may seem odd, but for me, odd though it may be, it is a fact. Sometimes writers hate words, painters hate paint, and composers hate notes.
Painters feel the same way about paint as I do about words–that the goal of doing this thing called art in these media is to never be caught unable to express what you want or need to express. A writer must be able to write everything down, a painter to paint everything she can see or imagine, and composers to be able to use all the means available to them to express all emotions.
When you are a magician with language as American novelist Thomas Wolfe and American poet Walt Whitman, and French novelist Marcel Proust were–more so than any other writers who walked this earth (including Shakespeare)–you have available to you all the words you will ever need to express with the exceptional skills of the trained writer, which you take for granted, anything and everything–any emotion, any idea, any situation, any image–you can hold in your mind. Nothing is out of your range, everything is within your grasp.
But at times I become so filled up and overly sated with words–thinking of them, writing them, reading them from morning to night year after year, decade after decade–that I reach a kind of maximum limit and it is futile to go on. I must be away from them.
For a while I have to be free from the tyranny of having to go through the process of translating, as though from a foreign language, every palpable thing I can see or touch or hear or imagine, or remember, and each and every mood I can feel, into abstract, impossible-to-touch symbols–words and syllables.
There is no word or combination of words ever written in poetry or prose that is as tangible and pleasurable as a kiss or a caress.
I find that it is hopeless to try to fight this mood. Nothing but frustration is gained by being heroic and hacking away at the keyboard in hopes that something more or less intelligible that can be worked into something more meaningful will mercifully appear on the screen. No, it’s best when words become abhorrent to me–to you, fellow writer–to just shut down, be patient, and wait.
I think this bottling-up happens to many writers, but they don’t realize what’s happening to them. They come to that impasse I know so well and they have no idea why or what to do next. And painters may be unable to even look at their palette and grow sick for a while of their beloved medium and need a break.
My periodic aversion to words, when the bases of my craft are repugnant to me, reminds me of the great cellist Pablo Casals whose first thought when he fell and injured his hand was a happy one–that maybe now he wouldn’t have to play the cello anymore.
Having been through this troublesome block many times, I stop writing and I stop reading and try to clear my mind of words, just as painters who have been exposed to too much color stop painting for a while.
Then, without the written word, I have lost my bearings. I am aimless. I watch TV, paying no attention, or look for someone to talk to or go upstairs and lift weights or go for a walk or thumb through a baseball magazine.
A listless evening or a day or two of seeming to have no purpose in life pass, and my passion for words returns and I am hungry to sit at the computer and watch nouns and verbs, and then their friends the adjectives and adverbs appear in a perfect order on the screen as I hoped they would.
At that moment the creator’s existence–lived in a little world of contented seclusion, devoid of glamour–seems to me in an astonishing way to be as splendid and wonderful as any life on earth could be.
I am again confident, blissful, my temporary word-aversion now gone from me. I am happy. Everything I love and can think of I then love more tenderly. I am creating again, performing the sole work I believe I was so carefully allotted X number of years in this world to see what I could do with–which may be the same feeling you have about your work.
© 2018 David J. Rogers
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