“… give peace to write and read and think.” — Lucretius
At Rockefeller Park, the leaves are now past-peak. Still, there are spikes of burgundy against acid yellow; bushes with blood red and green leaves larger than a giant’s hands. Indian summer duly came after the first frost. An October snow; in early November, that disarming return of summer.
Things seen: Among the flaming foliage, a flame-haired couple who maybe married to have that flame-haired baby. Last Tuesday, late evening, spilling out from a posh Soho cafe, a bunch of youngish painters with large easels on the sidewalk, copying magazine pictures by artificial light. The most bizarre thing, on Wooster near Bleecker: an oldish woman, bare-breasted, strolling nonchalantly, a Dali mustache penciled across her philtrum. . . and overheard, at the West Beth flea market (the labyrinthine cellar stuffed with eccentric odds and ends, superintended by a passel of eccentric elderly, one of whom said: “I knew Howard Johnson. He was a nice man.”
A carpenter’s toolbag: Vocabulary and the blessed dictionary.
If you were to hire a carpenter to build your bookshelves, and he arrived without tools, or was so uneducated in his trade that he uses a nail-file to cut wood and a bottle-brush to drive nails, you’d send him away and look for someone with sufficient equipment and knowledge to do the job. If you write an essay using an insufficient vocabulary, or misunderstand the correct definitions of the words you do use, you will be limited in your expressive and communicative capacities. In fact, you may accidentally mislead your reader into thinking the opposite of what you wish to convey. The same is true with connotative word choices.
Sugar on Potatoes: Connotations and the blessed thesaurus.
One reason to build a good vocabulary is to have many words in your tool-bag to choose from. Each synonym conveys a different feeling, association, flavor, color, musical key, idea. Is there a difference in “feeling-sense” between “house” and “home”? The writer’s choice of words is called “diction.”
In the same way, in describing a thin person, you might call him scrawny, skinny, sinewy, spare, slender, slim, or svelte – and those are just the “s” words! All refer to leanness, but each has a distinct connotation.
Put a different way, choosing a word with an unsuitable connotation is like putting sugar instead of salt on mashed potatoes. Sugar and salt are both white crystals, just as scrawny and slender both mean thin, but sugar and salt, and scrawny and slender differ wildly in effect. Most people would prefer to be called “slender” than “scrawny,” wouldn’t you agree? Don’t you prefer sugar on your blueberries, and salt on your mashed potatoes?
(Note, however, that some experienced writers deliberately use a word of a “wrong” or unexpected connotation for irony, emphasis, or shock.)
Example of connotation: Henry James begins Portrait of a Lady: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” James could have chosen a word other than “ceremony,” such as ritual, rite, habit, custom, observance, routine, practice. Each has its own flavor. James chooses to color the simple domestic convention of having afternoon tea with grandeur, through “ceremony.”)
Thesaurus means treasury. Collect a treasure house of synonyms.
I’ve been compiling a little handbook of good-writing hints for my students at NYU. Many beginning writers suffer from verbositis, redundanitis, and other common ailments that congest an essay with the symptoms of a bad cold.
Of the many metaphors I’ve dreamed up is a comparison of the academic response paper or personal creative essay to an old-fashioned choo-choo train. Amazing how similar is the composition of their anatomies– from the cowcatcher of critical thinking at the front, to the conclusive caboose at the end. This mnemonic device should help beginning writers stay on track as they ride the rails of concision and clarity.
When: 9/8/11. Where: Pier 25. Who: Man to woman. Attitude: Humorous. Quote: “My wife said, Are you sublimating, or are you coming to bed?”
When: 9/11/11. Where: Tribeca. Who: Guy to friend. Attitude: Jocular. Quote: “This guy’s in Best Buy buying a 72” flat screen TV and talking about how terrible the economy is. That’s the kind of humor I encounter.”
When: 9/30/11. Where: Hudson & Reade. Who: Woman on cellphone. Attitude: pleased. Quote: “I bought some nice tweezers instead of paying for waxing.”
When: 6/5/11. Where: Jay Street. Who: Young guy on cell. Attitude: Admiring. Quote: “He has limited weapons but he uses them very well.”
When: 6/24/11. Where: N. Moore Street. Who: Young guy on cell. Attitude: Patronizing. Quote: “I feel you’re gravitating toward assholes, when you have friends who are perfectly adequate.”
When: 6/29/11. Where: Greenwich & Desbrosses St. Who: Young woman on cell phone. Attitude: matter-of-fact. Quote: “My friend’s mother is technically insane.”
When: 7/1/11. Where: Franklin Street, in front of the $50K/month townhouse where Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been under house arrest. Who: paparazzo. Attitude: excited. Quote: “They’re letting him out! The evidence against him is being questioned!”
When: 7/10/11. Where: Irish Hunger Memorial, Battery Park City. Who: Two old men on bikes. Attitude: genial. First man: “Is this when our great grandfather came here?” Second man: “He was naturalized in 1867.”
When: 8/3/11. Where: Hudson St. Who: Two youngish men. Attitude: resigned. Quote: “Every year I look forward to summer, but then summer comes and, well, you know.”
When: 8/21/11. Where: Whole Foods Who: Young barista. Attitude: circumspect. Quote: “I’m not embarrassed, but I wouldn’t want the whole world to find out.”
When: 8/23/11. Where: Greenwich St. Who: Young man to girl. Attitude: Earnest. Quote: “I’m not embarrassed, but I wouldn’t want the whole world to find out.”
I’ve always loved severe storms, having grown up in south Florida where hurricanes were annual events. The neighborhood became flooded, and we were cautioned not to go out afterwards, in case there were loose electrical wires down in the streets. I imagined the flooded roads swarming with black electric eels, and was duly scared, though some of the reckless kids would ride their bikes through the submerged pavements, coasting with their legs straight out, tires cutting through and spraying waves.
Indoors, during the storm, we were safe from fallen trees whose branches were on the ground and roots were exposed to the sky. I’d drape a table with a sheet to make a haven, and ferried toys to safety in a shoebox train. The sound effects were monumental: rattling jalousies, creaking roof, scraping branches, the crack and boom of thunder. The bathtubs were filled with drinking water. When the electricity died, we had flashlights. The phone and TV no longer worked, so we listened to a crackly radio, with its alarmist cautions and weather-speak. The next day school was closed.
During Irene’s visit, last weekend, weatherpersons were kept busy tracking the storm’s progress up the east coast. The TV projected what looked like flying ninja stars, or those lethal-looking symbols for biomedical waste. “The bay will meet the ocean in this one,” a wary bystander told an anchorman, who held a mic under his nose. I awaited its arrival at a window.
In the interminable lull, I hazarded out for more supplies: canned dogfood, batteries, tinned sardines. I passed a woman in a hurry who was telling her cellphone, “Eighty-five-mile-an-hour winds they’re predicting.”
The river was jade-gray. Dragon-tooth clouds marched across a sky of a different shade of white. A huge cruise ship slipped by, a silent behemoth like the encroaching storm. Large, silent, moving objects are often ominous: the shark circling in the water; the stealth bomber circling in the sky; the panther turning and turning in a narrowing gyre before the crouch to pounce. The breeze’s predatory breath, meanwhile, had been increasing incrementally into rage. In the park, a Chinese man was calmly doing Tai Chi, a lone figure dwarfed by overpowering nature in a landscape-scroll, or dwarfed by the thought-vortices in his own mind. I thought of Leonardo’s drawings of winds and tides.
For most of the night I stayed up to watch the lashing rain and the rioting, mane-tossed trees. By next morning, the storm was over. There were no lakes of electric eels, just an aftermath of remnant winds and a mess of leaves on macadam. There was a different kind of stillness now, without threat. And that evening, under a spectacular sunset, some little boats with shark-tooth sails ventured out.