An Effluvium of Hysteria

I love words.  I always have.  I caught the bug at a very early age.  I remember when I was eight years old, reading comic books, I would sometimes come across words I’d never heard of.  When I did, I would immediately put the comic down and open the dictionary I had, easily accessible, on a book shelf in my room.

words!

 

One of the first words I recall discovering this way was “sanctimonious.”  It occurred in Fantastic Four # 111, and it was Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) who uttered it.  Back then, reading issue after issue of my favorite comic book, I could always count on old Reed to introduce me to new and exciting words.

ff111

 

reed

 

In school essays, I would occasionally show off, and use some of the intimidating words I’d learned.  When I was nine or ten, teachers would comment favorably.  They were just happy I was reading and learning vocabulary.  But when I reached junior high, and especially high school, the response was different.

I remember on one essay, the teacher had circled the word “clandestine,” and wrote in the margin:  “Better to say ‘secret.'”  I took the paper to him after class and asked him why.

“If you want people to know what you’re writing about,” he said, “you have to speak to them with the language they know.  If you use words they’re not sure about, you’re going to lose them on the first page.”

simple

 

I thought about it that night, and though I understood what he meant, I didn’t fully agree.  Of course, I realized, if you pepper your manuscript with hundred-dollar words, you’ll come across as snobbish or out of touch, interested first and foremost with your own perceived brilliance.

beconcise

 

But on the other hand, if you oversimplify everything, and strip your prose down to a fourth-grade level, aren’t you losing something precious, too?

I turned to books on writing and style.  What did the experts have to say?  For the most part, they agreed with my teacher.

“Be concise.”  “Do not use needless words.”  “Avoid adverbs.”  “Too many adjectives will derail your prose.”  “If you need to look a word up in a thesaurus, don’t use it.  It’s not the right word.”  And so on.

elementsofstyle

 

And again, I didn’t disagree.  This struck me as good, sensible advice–most of the time.  But sometimes . . .

I have always been a fan of Ray Bradbury.  His enthusiasm, imagination, and rich, layered style have always served as an inspiration for me.  And while handbooks on the nuts and bolts of writing are useful tools every writer should own, I find the best teachers are not the grammarians and professors.  The best teachers are the authors.

When I was in high school, searching for my voice, learning to create fiction worth reading, I was much more likely to listen to Ray Bradbury than William Strunk.

And there is one Bradbury story in particular that I read for the first time when I was a senior in high school that clarified this entire issue for me more than any style book or teaching guide ever could.  In fact, just the first two paragraphs of the story did the trick.

smallassassin

 

“The Small Assassin,” first and foremost, is a terrifying short story.  Bradbury’s writing ability transcends genre.  He is often labeled a sci-fi author, but he has created tales in nearly ever genre, including horror.  “The Small Assassin” definitely falls within that category.  It gave me nightmares for a week.   It remains to this day perhaps the most frightening story I have ever read.

Much of the story is written in clear, concise fashion, not always the case with Bradbury.  Stories such as “The Sound of Summer Running,” for example, are really prose poems dressed up as short stories.

soundofsummer

 

Not so with “The Small Assassin.”  Here, while he maintains his writing flair, the prose, in general, is more streamlined, razor-sharp, honed to a cutting edge.  Nevertheless, he does not entirely avoid difficult words . . .

The first paragraph of “The Small Assassin” reads:

“Just when the idea occurred to her that she was being murdered she could not tell.  There had been little subtle signs, little suspicions for the past month; things as deep as sea tides in her, like looking at a perfectly calm stretch of tropic water, wanting to bathe in it and finding, just as the tide takes your body, that monsters dwell just under the surface, things unseen, bloated, many-armed, sharp-finned, malignant and inescapable.”

This paragraph has the customary Bradbury magic of syntax and style, imagery and metaphor, but, apart from the possible exception of “malignant,” there isn’t a fancy word to be found.

It’s the first sentence of the second paragraph that shifts the flow.  The second paragraph reads:

“A room floated around her in an effluvium of hysteria.  Sharp instruments hovered and there were voices, and people in sterile white masks.”

whitemask

 

When I first read “The Small Assassin,” in my eighteenth year, I had never before come across the word “effluvium.”  I had no idea what it meant!  And yet . . . it held me rapt, mesmerized.  I didn’t look it up until after I finished the story.  I couldn’t put it down.  Because even though I didn’t know the dictionary definition of “effluvium,” the word elicited a feeling, a rushing current of hidden meaning and subtext.

webster

 

Webster defines “effluvium” as “an invisible emanation; an offensive exhalation or smell.  A by-product, especially in the form of waste.”

So . . . what, then, is an effluvium of hysteria?  Perhaps Bradbury could have simply written, “A room floated around her.  She felt nervous and afraid.”  Or, perhaps.  “There was the offensive odor of hysteria.”  Either of these would have been concise, simple, matter-of-fact.  But it would not have been memorable.  It would not have stayed with me, years after I read it.  It would not have implanted itself in a crevice deep within the folds of my brain.  It would have been ordinary.

In the context of “The Small Assassin,” an “effluvium of hysteria” sounds like a car spinning out of control, careening downhill; a person falling from a great height; or, someone on the brink of madness, panic-stricken, gripped with a terror too powerful for words.  “Nervous,” “odor,” or “hysterical” just can’t compete with that.

spinning

 

This is not to say that the general accepted advice is “wrong.”  Ninety-nine percent of the time, clear and concise and simple trumps wordy and difficult.  But to eliminate that special 1% altogether?

Of course, much depends on context.  An instruction manual surely would not want to incorporate the word “effluvium”!  (Though it would make for an interesting manual.)  And in dialogue, certain characters, Marc Kuslanski included, will have a penchant for fancy words.  But in general, as is the case with so many writing “rules” and guidelines, the key is finding a happy medium.

balance

 

So the next time you’re writing and one of those “too-difficult” words pops into your head, go ahead and use it.

Because sometimes, every now and then, nothing but an “effluvium of hysteria” will do.

ideasend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

91 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Esther
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 19:54:26

    You give me an idea: I will read “The small assassin”. Very good post

    Reply

  2. tonyroberts64
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 19:55:40

    I am currently teaching an “Introduction to College Writing” course and would very much like to provide a link to this blog post for my students, and quote sections from it in class. Is that okay with you? Properly credited, of course.

    Reply

  3. Elaine Jeremiah
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 19:57:28

    Great piece! I like to use more eloquent words in my writing sometimes. It can be so repetitive and boring using run of the mill words and phrases. Obviously, as you point out, it’s not good to overdo it. But as you say it’s finding the happy medium that’s important. And ‘effluvium’. I didn’t know that word. You learn something new every day… 🙂

    Reply

  4. ptero9
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 20:07:32

    Another very insightful post Michael.

    I might go farther than you have here on the issue of language usage because it seems to me that we are losing our language and quite often do not understand our relationship to it. When we understand a new word, it expands our world and gives us new ideas.

    I too was fascinated by words at an early age, but unlike you, I didn’t look up the meanings. I used to scribble in a phony script in notebooks long before I could write. I was in love with the idea of writing, lol.

    Expanding my understanding of language, and increasing my vocabulary have been life-changing for me. But, none of that happened when I was a student.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 17, 2014 @ 20:37:07

      Great points, and you are right. Learning new vocabulary is indeed a wonderful thing, and it would definitely be a shame if language and vocabulary become “lost arts” as we progress further into the 21st century. Hopefully that won’t happen!

      Reply

  5. Sherri
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 20:26:08

    Brilliant, and I will remember this post Mike 🙂

    Reply

  6. Juli D. Revezzo
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 20:27:17

    Amen brother! What some call 50 cent words, I call vocabulary! 🙂

    Reply

  7. Meredith
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 20:32:12

    I love this post. I’ve become thoroughly disgusted with the dumbing down of this country and even though I might not have the biggest vocabulary in the world I like to see a new word now and then. It prompts me to learn something. I vote for not sacrificing the beauty of the English language for appealing to the masses. Perhaps the masses would do well to learn a new word or too also.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 17, 2014 @ 20:38:24

      Very well said!

      Reply

      • Meredith
        Jan 17, 2014 @ 21:18:13

        Oh, this is wonderful. I re-read my comment after I got your comment and realized I mistyped “two” in my comment. Leave it to me to slam the dumbing down of America and mistype (I know the difference, really!) two, to, and too. I really must proof before submitting. 🙂

    • FreeRangeCow
      Jan 28, 2014 @ 15:40:27

      I was gong to post my own eloquent rant and then saw Meredith’s. I cannot agree, more. My university Grammar professor once said (ca 1991) he expected our entire nation to lose all well-formed vowels and speak only with a schwa. I thought he was exaggerating…and then I get texts from my friends…Oh.My.Goodness.

      Reply

  8. Joanna
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 20:32:25

    Oh that’s a great post! I’m with you about the balance. You don’t want to be verbose but surely your readers would happily look up a word knowing it captures exactly what you want to say. You might also lose your creative fire if you felt you were dumbing things down.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 17, 2014 @ 20:39:44

      That’s a good point! For example, I shudder to think how Ray Bradbury would be stripped of so much of his flair and talent if he had strictly adhered to the “keep it simple” doctrine!

      Reply

      • Joanna
        Jan 17, 2014 @ 20:57:06

        Steven Erikson says “Ambition is not a dirty word. Piss on compromise. Go for the throat. Write with balls, write with eggs.” I love his writing and have to look up words all the time! Mike your posts are great.

  9. jenniferkmarsh
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 20:37:04

    I’m glad you’ve said this – not to disregard “too-difficult” words, I mean. It annoys me when people say you should do this and you should do that with regards to writing. All the ‘rules’ and ‘ways you SHOULD write’. Just go with your heart, what is right for you and the story.

    I agree, though, that sometimes simple works best, just as sometimes wordy works best. Context is so important.

    I think you’ve been rather fair 😉 Thanks for posting.

    Take care! 🙂

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 17, 2014 @ 20:41:43

      Thanks, Jenny! I couldn’t agree more. I also don’t like the “rules” and “shoulds” of writing! Every writer is different, and the greatest writers of all time frequently broke the “rules”! Writing with your heart is the number-one guideline, always. Always great hearing from you!:)

      Reply

  10. merrildsmith
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 20:53:20

    Wonderfully said, Mike. Sometimes it’s best to keep it simple, but sometimes it’s not. So much depends on the mood or tone the writer wants to create.
    Also, effluvium is a great word–and fun to say. 🙂 I love Ray Bradbury, but I don’t think I know this story, so now I will have to look for it.

    BTW, I was thinking of you the other night when my husband and I were watching old Twilight Zone episodes. We saw “Ninety Years Without Slumbering” with Ed Wynn.

    Reply

  11. Lyn
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 21:23:17

    You’ll get no arguments from me on this post. The saying, “an ignorant and uneducated population is easier to control” springs to mind. We are definitely dumbing down our education system. Spelling lists that I had in fifth and sixth grade are now words that can’t even be correctly spelt by some senior high or even college level students. The idea of not correcting a child’s spelling because it might injure their self-esteem is ludicrous.
    I’m going to reblog this, Mike.

    Reply

  12. Lyn
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 21:27:31

    Reblogged this on The Call of the Pen and commented:
    If you’re a writer, you should read Mike’s thoughts on the fine line between using the occasional interesting word in your writing and dumbing down your writing too far.

    Reply

  13. michellejoycebond
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 22:36:09

    I agree–keep that flavor in your writing! 🙂

    Reply

  14. Karen's Nature Art
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 00:45:53

    I love interesting words too, and most of the time, context will give you a clue as to its meaning. Kerfuffle was always one of my daughter’s favorites and I’m still amused when I see it used in various news articles. Great post!

    Reply

  15. jjspina
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 01:19:15

    Keep using your panoptic vocabulary. I love big words and always have a dictionary and thesaurus close by when writing or reading. After all being a writer means we are very verbose. Love your posts! Look forward to the next one!

    Reply

  16. insearchofitall
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 02:43:25

    You said it so well and many of your readers comments reflect my own attitude about language. I was brought up bi-lingual and struggled with both languages. Not enough quality in our education as military drifters. My dad started sitting with me on Sundays and picking words out of the dictionary, asking me to tell him what they meant and spell them just by hearing the word. I learned to break words apart and get the feel for their meaning. This country is happy to dumb us down. Like my dad, I raised my children to be articulate if not verbose. And I LOVE learning a new word I have not seen before. When I became ill with Bells Palsy, it hit like a stroke and I lost a lot of my words. Part of the reason I write now is to help find them again. Words are freedom to me. Even though I’m not a great science fiction reader, I’ve enjoyed your book and your posts. BTW, I did get to see that Twilight Zone episode of Santa Claus during the holiday marathon and loved it. Keep teaching us. And thanks.

    Reply

  17. hocuspocus13
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 11:07:48

    Reblogged this on hocuspocus13 and commented:
    jinxx reblogged to hocuspocus13

    Reply

  18. teagan geneviene
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 12:57:59

    Mike, is it okay if I reblog this post? Not only did I enjoy it, I agree completely.
    I’ll go ahead and admit it – sometimes I can be a bit of a “grammarian.” However, that does not apply to using words in new and creative ways – or twisting them into something improper but fun!

    Reply

  19. teagan geneviene
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 13:15:14

    Reblogged this on Teagan's Books and commented:
    Plain Language – Evocative Language
    In my “day job” I am quite deliberate about using plain language. I realize its importance in business settings. In some organizations simple communications are even more important than in others.
    It doesn’t necessarily reflect the knowledge level of the readers either. Recently I found myself translating for a very high-level person with no degree, and an employee with more than one degree. Simple words were being used, but each person had a widely different definition for those terms.
    Then there’s my creative writing and my personal preferences. I’ll go ahead and admit it – sometimes I can be a bit of a “grammarian.” However, that does not apply to using words in new and creative ways – or twisting them into something improper but fun!
    What’s my point? Plain language and evocative language are not mutually exclusive ideas. Particularly in fiction [or other non-business settings] what a word makes the reader feel is very important. That’s why I enjoyed Mike Fedison’s post so much – An Effluvium of Hysteria. I very rarely “reblog” a post from another writer, but I thought this one was wonderful. So… Please allow me to introduce the author of “The Eye Dancers,” Michael S. Fedison.
    Enjoy,
    teagan

    Reply

  20. dharmabeachbum
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 13:15:21

    Really enjoyed this piece, Mike. Strunk and White has been like a Bible to me, yet I find it has in some ways hindered me in my quest to make the transition from journalism to creative writing. I was taught to write to a ninth grade level in college. That doesn’t necessarily work when writing fiction.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 20, 2014 @ 18:34:00

      That’s very true. When writing fiction, I often find that strict “rules” are just as often limiting as they are helpful. Somewhere in there, there is a happy balance between the two . . .

      Reply

  21. mud fur and feathers
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 14:15:12

    Perhaps “writers” who provide scripts for TV shows and movies will take your words to heart. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if they would exchange some of their trite and irritatingly stupid dialogues for something more stimulating? I loved learning that you developed an appreciation for words from reading comic books as a child. Where and how do our children develop a love for reading (incidentally while expanding their vocabularies) now?

    Reply

  22. mud fur and feathers
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 14:16:44

    Reblogged this on Mud 'n Feathers and commented:
    Our schools should have more teachers like this!

    Reply

  23. Fashion Mayann
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 15:01:19

    Congratulations for being reblogged by Teagan Geneviene, with such a fantastic (as in “Fantastic Four” LOL) post ! I love writers who dare use “challenging” words !

    Reply

  24. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 16:29:49

    Fabulous post, Mike. I love when you said, “So the next time you’re writing and one of those “too-difficult” words pops into your head, go ahead and use it.”

    Sometimes as writers we need to be given permission to do something ‘we’ feel is right, and it’s okay to color outside of the lines. Especially when you have…ahem, editors telling you, you can’t. (Although most of the time I do listen to my editor.)

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 20, 2014 @ 18:36:41

      Yes, sometimes it’s good to against the grain, isn’t it?:) Generally I agree with the “rules” of good writing, but there are certainly times when those rules need to be bent . . .

      Reply

  25. Charron's Chatter
    Jan 18, 2014 @ 20:52:02

    well said. I think the tenth way of defining anything is best…;) that being, of course, subjective definitions. 🙂

    Reply

  26. Avery Sines
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 01:37:46

    Reblogged this on Serial Narratives.

    Reply

  27. stockdalewolfe
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 02:47:46

    Great title! Interesting post!

    Reply

  28. laurie27wsmith
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 07:42:25

    K.I.S.S. I hated that acronym when I was a copper. I wrote many a report and liked to use good, meaty words. then a sergeant said, keep it simple stupid. Which in a way is sad because you then have to write for the lowest common denominator. I mastered it, difficult when the report might have to be read at different levels in the chain of command. You raised a good question, how far do you water down your work.
    Cheers
    Laurie.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 20, 2014 @ 18:39:29

      That is a very tricky and precarious line to walk. On the one hand, you write with your own voice, but on the other, you are writing for a wide and (hopefully) diverse audience. Finding a balance between the two, I suppose, is one of the many reasons writing is an art and not a science . . .

      Reply

  29. 'CC' Richards, Daytripper Sippers
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 17:15:56

    I don’t think ‘the two sides’ of Plain English and colourful English are mutually exclusive – the balance is decided by the writing purpose and audience. Plain English is used for business, government or legal purposes. Creative writing is different and would be bland if written using the styles guides. There are different ‘Englishes’.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 20, 2014 @ 18:41:48

      This is a good point. I agree that many types of writing, by definition, need to be bland. The trouble arises, I think, when fiction and creative writing are treated the same way–which they often are. I think clear and concise in fiction is great–up to a certain point.:)

      Reply

  30. 'CC' Richards, Daytripper Sippers
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 17:19:42

    … forgot to say… Great post again, Mike. Getting us all thinking. Now don’t get me started on ‘Punctuation’… 🙂

    Reply

  31. Kev
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 17:49:53

    It’s a case of knowing your audience. If you’re writing a tech manual, you need all the jargon. If you’re writing about your subject to the public, best to leave the jargon out. Who you are writing for makes all the difference in how you write.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 20, 2014 @ 18:44:59

      That’s a great point, and something every writer needs to be aware of. I think with fiction, though, sometimes the writing manuals are too uniform. If all writers stuck to them to the letter, it would make for some bland storytelling. Sometimes “fancy” is better than simple in fiction. The trick is to find the balance and to know when to go for broke. Which is why writing is so fascinating! There is no “right” way to do it . . .

      Reply

      • Kev
        Jan 20, 2014 @ 20:17:48

        So true. 🙂 It’s like being told not to use adverbs and adjectives…I keep them to a minimum but sometimes while I’m writing or editing I think, to hell with it…I like it there and it’s staying. 😀

  32. barbaramonier
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 21:33:53

    You had me at “Effluvium!”

    Reply

  33. WordsFallFromMyEyes
    Jan 22, 2014 @ 08:18:57

    I am so with you, Michael. I have ever, ever loved words.

    “Effluvium of hysteria” is great – love it 🙂 I say go for it, as whatever SOUNDS/FEELS right, is right. Sometimes, I think, people do get stuck on my words, my flow, but I still can’t do it any other way as it just feels right.

    Great article, Michael, really love it. I love how you personalise, too.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 22, 2014 @ 13:22:52

      Very well said.:) I think any writer needs to listen, first and foremost, to his or her own beat, and go with it. Sometimes that beat needs to be edited or revised, but never at the expense of losing the author’s innate and unique voice. It’s always great hearing from you.:)

      Reply

  34. Sue Dreamwalker
    Jan 23, 2014 @ 14:47:26

    I think we have all been given another treat through your Words Mike, I was so pleased to have been introduced to books by my English teacher who would give me books off her own bookshelves to read… I never had my nose out of a book even in the school playground…
    Words are a delight.. and such a lot can be gleaned from a sentence such as this ..

    “A room floated around her in an effluvium of hysteria. Sharp instruments hovered and there were voices, and people in sterile white masks.” It immediately sets the scene.. and the imagination flares to want to know more..

    Have a wonderful week.. and if I didnt already say it Best wishes for 2014 xx
    Sue

    Reply

  35. katdesigner
    Jan 23, 2014 @ 17:54:23

    Hello there! What a wonderful post! I have partly found myself agreeing with what you have said. It is also the ability of taking the criticism and working with it. On the note of the most scariest and memorable read on top of my list is for sure Orwell’s 1984. I love books, which won’t make you put them down and you have to read them like taking a drug. Thank you for liking my blog, I will be taking time to browse around your blog for sure. Best of luck from Kat.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 24, 2014 @ 16:24:43

      Thanks, Kat! And that’s a good point about being able to take and work with criticism. Sometimes a writer may in fact have written something great, but then receives bad feedback . . . If you believe in the things you write, you have to be open to critique and trying to make your work better. But you also have to believe in yourself and know when the criticism is wrong or unfounded. Admittedly, this is hard to do!

      Reply

  36. 2embracethelight
    Jan 24, 2014 @ 00:34:14

    You have given us yet another good post. I appreciate your perspective as always
    Yisraela

    Reply

  37. jamieayres
    Jan 24, 2014 @ 02:22:08

    Very informative post!! Great stuff 🙂

    Reply

  38. fashionassist
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 03:59:25

    Seems one can often find themselves in a wordy predicament…
    battling the option of whether to go difficult or stay simple…
    but once again you’ve given us savoury “food for thought”…
    and remembering words “effluvium of hysteria” will ignite me to…
    take the risk and go with the “too-difficult” word…
    make it more memorable and don’t be timid…
    go ahead and use it! 😉

    Reply

  39. reocochran
    Feb 02, 2014 @ 17:27:00

    I like reading the masters in their choices of lessons and words on how to write. Their examples challenge me to get to be a better writer. I still like Elements of Writing (am I giving the correct title?) by E.B. White. best. I like humor mixed into writing like James Thurber and Mark Twain, who both told intimate stories with great details! (They knew how to be succinct whereas Hemingway is not my favorite writer…) These are ‘off the cuff’ remarks, but definitely enjoyed your perspective, glad you are published and can teach us a thing or two, too! Smiles, Robin

    Reply

  40. Angela Grant
    Feb 03, 2014 @ 15:37:55

    The inchoate stage in an effluvium of diasters. Inchoate is a word I like but never use.

    Reply

  41. Joanna Fay
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 13:08:37

    Thanks for this post…effluvium is now firmly fixed in my brain! Style and taste have to do with sensibility, and sensibility draws us to particular writers. I did enjoy your example here. 🙂

    Reply

  42. reocochran
    Feb 18, 2014 @ 00:40:24

    Whenever I recently read or hear the word, “Hysteria,” I think of the movie that is about the invention of the vibrator. It is told or shown in a historic movie that is not dirty. I was surprised and could not resist telling you it is worth seeing. Fine actors and script… Totally off the subject! Robin

    Reply

  43. Trackback: Post 16: Blog Posts Worth to Mention! 106 to go! | My journey on becoming full-time designer.
  44. Trackback: Three Ingredients – 14: Pinto Beans, Brown Rice, Tofu | Teagan's Books

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