I Am Not An Artist

PARANOIA ABOUT NONSTOP DESIGN WORKERS

One of the ongoing threads of readers’ contributions is “The Verbing of America” (as Bulletin Board’s editor ironically dubbed it). Launched as a language lover’s lament about the bowdlerizing of English, this discussion thread has pilloried such slangy coinages as columnize, which you may have winced at in my first sentence.

Lately, however, “The Verbing of America” entries have sometimes taken a fonder view of the colorful phrasings spotted and submitted by readers. For example, one Bulletin Board correspondent recently wrote in to report, with delight rather than dismay: “I was at choir practice last night, and we came to this part in this piece that we’re singing where our choir director, Steve, wanted the chorus to swell and get all … big. He said: `I really want it big. I want it Cecil B. DeMilled.’ ”

Verbs can be tough for non-native English speakers.

True, if you look in even the heftiest, least-abridged dictionary under “Cecil B. DeMille,” you will not see “v.–to make extravagantly large and showy.” But even language purists would have to confess: You know exactly what

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Languages and cultures have been my lifelong passions. Maybe it is because I grew up in Southern California, amid Latino influences. In school, I heard Mexican-American students speaking Spanish. Downtown, I saw blocks of stores, all with signs in Spanish. Rich, wonderful smells permeated the air, and mariachi music poured out into the streets when restaurant doors opened. Inside, musicians strolled from table to table, dressed in the dashing black and silver of caballeros, strumming guitars and bowing violins with romantic finesse.

Maybe it is because my grandmother loved to take my sister and me to places like Chinatown in Los Angeles, where we would hear the timbre of spoken Mandarin and Cantonese, breathe spicy incense, taste exotic food with wooden chopsticks, and finger cool silks and paper fans in dark, mysterious shops. I remember dressing with care in delicious anticipation of these outings, knowing that we would be allowed to indulge our youthful curiosity while momentarily becoming part of the much envied, grownup world of travel and adventure.

There are the normal problems you and I face trying to find the right part at the right price, problems exacerbated by the distribution centers that close the last half of December. Not to mention our employees’, our suppliers’, and our own brains seem to shut down for just about the same period of time. And there are the problems that come naturally when you try to travel on your bike seriously and get 20 percent more work out of an environment `comfortable’ with present production. All these realities contribute to the kind of physical and emotional exhaustion you probably know all too well.

psBy the time Christmas Eve rolls around I make Scrooge look like a party animal! I don’t want to answer the telephone. I don’t want to smile and say `Happy Holidays’. And I don’t want to be surrounded by throngs of people pushing, shoving, bumping, or in some other way invading my private space. All I want is to be left alone, slowly reducing speed so nothing breaks as I quietly come to a complete stop.

After that,

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About a year and a half ago I wrote a column in which I said “Fiction is made of sentences.” Though not false, that statement isn’t exactly the truth. Last week a sharp-eyed, if not-up-to-date, reader from Atlanta wrote to correct me. “It’s not the sentence that is the basic building block,” claims Joshua Collins, “but the word. With the wrong words, you can’t build a good sentence.”

And, of course, he’s right.

Words are our raw materials. In any act of creation, the higher quality and better chosen the raw material, the better the result. Words are the atoms out of which your fictional universe is constructed.

So if words are the basis of fiction, the specific words you choose (what’s known as diction) will have a tremendous effect on the quality of your story. Yes, plot and character and setting and all those other things also matter–a lot–but each of those elements comes to your readers only through words. Word choice can turn a good story into a bad one, or vice versa.

So what makes a word choice or