Monday, September 28, 2009

What's on your list?

Playing around with words is one of my personal indulgences. Right up there with bright red toenail polish and strong drinks with cherries in them.

So this morning, while I was playing around, I ran across an online article by a writing teacher with a list of words she has vowed to stop using. I’m not sure why she feels so strongly about them. Perhaps because she felt she was overusing them – always a good reason. Perhaps because she doesn’t like the way they look or sound – justifiable, but somewhat capricious.

Topping her list is “shard.” Now, in my opinion, that’s a perfectly good word. If you’ve ever stepped quickly aside while a crystal goblet heads for a tile floor, you know there are shards in your future. You immediately understand that the word has an important place in the lexicon – you’re going to need it to tell the doctor what needs to be picked out of your foot. Next on the writer’s list is “smirk.” One of my favorite words. She thinks it’s cartoonish. Maybe it is. But hanging over my desk is a brightly colored drawing of the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz. He was drawn by my favorite six‒year-old and on his face is a very delicious smirk. He makes my day. Without his smirk he’d simply be a lopsided conglomeration of parts. His smirk reveals his soul – and cheers up mine.

The writing teacher has also forsaken writing about any heroine who was “visibly shaken” or who has ever “gathered up her skirts.” I can only say that she never saw the look on my husband’s face when he realized I’d thrown out the last brownie to see “visibly shaken” take life. Or watched my mother bustle out to the car on her way to a formal meeting of the Eastern Star to recognize a true “gathering up of skirts.” When a group of words does the job, you need to be able to use them.

As I considered this teacher’s list, I wondered about my own. Are there words I want to eliminate from my keyboard, words I never again want to type, utter, or hear? Possibly.

First, I’d consider taking “should” out of commission. How much guilt, regret, and shame have those six letters produced? And I might put “can’t” on probation for awhile. I’m not one of those motivational speakers who believe anyone can do anything. I know, for example, that I “can’t” climb K2. It is not possible for me (or anyone I’ve ever known) to do so. As it is apparently not possible for me to stay upright on a pair of roller skates or wear size seven and a half shoes. These are things I legitimately “can’t” do. But it is a word I tend to use as a hiding place. "I can’t put up with this" is a different statement from "I won’t put up with this." So “can’t” gets a time out.

While I’m at it, I might give “that” a rest. David Ogilvie advised writers to try deleting every “that” and see how much their writing is strengthened. Not that I want to do that, but that might just be the thing that makes me a better writer. Ya think?

A few more might hit the bin, just because I don’t need them anymore. After a decade of writing copy for direct marketing campaigns, I’m probably through with “free” – more accurately “FREE!” And since I don’t sell cruises to Alaska anymore, I’m content to let eagles fly without “soaring effortlessly” and snow-clad mountains impress us without “stretching on endlessly.” And just for the record, I’ll never again promise anyone the “trip of your lifetime,” no matter how good it is.

But while we’re on the subject, there are some words I want to keep, wonderful words I’d like to hear-speak-write more often. “Happy” is one. Genuinely, honestly, I-can’t-stop-smiling happy. Along with “good,” as in good man, good job, good dog. And what about “true”? There’s a word we tend to be a little bit afraid of. We prefer to settle for things that are simply true enough; otherwise, we feel obliged to disclaim possible truth with pages of small print. But fact is, some things are true, some aren’t. I’d like to hear more true things – and more people willing to declare them so.

I’d also like to be able to say “I’m sorry” without having it sound trite or canned. I’d like to hear “How are you?” and think someone really wanted to know. And I’d like to be able to say “get well soon” and have my friend know how deeply I want her to be rich with health and energy.

So while I think it’s okay to have a words to avoid list, as this morning’s writing instructor so urgently recommends, I also think it’s important to have a words to embrace list. And at the top of mine is “content.” Content with what is in front of me instead of remorse for what is behind. Content with what I have rather than angry over what I’ve lost. Content with who I am, how I look, where I’ve wound up. And to understand the critical difference between being content and being complacent.