The Challenge of Writing . . . When There Are No Words

It was one of those landmark days, the kind of day where people later ask, “Where were you when that happened?”  The kind of day that leaves its mark, whether you want it to or not, intractable, like a brand on your soul.

It was Tuesday, January 28, 1986, two days after I had celebrated my birthday.  I was in junior high that year, and my love for all things astronomy had me fired up and eager for the events that were to take place on that cold, blustery winter morning.

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It was big news and a highly anticipated moment–the launching of the space shuttle Challenger, complete with its seven-person crew, including the first teacher ever to venture into space, Christa McAuliffe.  But it was a school day, after all, and at the time of the launch, I was in Earth Science class, taking a quiz.  The teacher, a bald, bespectacled man in his midfifties who gave us quizzes twice a week, without fail or exception, had the radio turned on, with live coverage of the launch.  It was hard to concentrate on the quiz.

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At 11:38 a.m., EST, liftoff!  The voices on the radio buzzed with excitement.  I remember putting down my pencil, looking out the window, imagining . . .

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But not for long.  I didn’t want to flunk the quiz, so I proceeded to the next question.  I read it once, twice, finding it hard to focus on the words.  As I finally honed in on the answer, the voices on the radio began to shout.  At first, I tried to ignore them.  I figured they must have been excited, that’s all.  But the shouting didn’t stop; it intensified.  Something clearly wasn’t right.

That’s when the words, tinny, with a hint of static, filtered through the classroom.  “The space shuttle Challenger has exploded!”

What?  I was sure I was misunderstanding, my hearing compromised by the distance and volume–the radio was a good thirty feet away from me, and not turned up very loud.  But then I looked at my desk mate, Anita.  She and I had known each other since we were toddlers.  We’d gone to kindergarten together, lived a half mile apart, on the same suburban street.  The expression on her face told me immediately that I had not misheard.

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Pandemonium on the radio.  Our teacher turned the volume up, and I thought of the absurdity of trying to take a quiz at a moment like this.  The flight had lasted all of 73 seconds before disaster struck.  The commentators were all shouting, exclaiming, already speculating what might have gone wrong.  In the desk in front of me, Joe and Tony, two good friends, looked back at Anita and me, open-mouthed, wide-eyed.

There were no words.  What could anyone say?  We just sat there, staring into the empty space of the room, at the radio, as if we might be able to will the reporters to say something different, or perhaps turn back time to just before the launch, and warn the crew not to fly.

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There are no words.  I said it again and again in my mind.

There are no words.

********************

That night, at home, I watched clip after clip of the nightmare.  It stung and horrified on an almost personal level, as I had entertained the idea of becoming an astronaut when I grew up.  I loved adventure, the planets, the endless blackness of outer space, the promise and mystery of a universe waiting to be discovered.

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I didn’t want to continue watching the shuttle explode, over and over, but I couldn’t seem to help it.  I stared at the television screen deep into the night, hoping for the impossible.

Finally I went to bed.  But I couldn’t sleep.  I thought of the crew–how long were they even aware that there was a problem on the Challenger?  Did they have ten seconds’ warning?  Five?  Two?  Or were they caught completely by surprise?  And the families, the loved ones . . .

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There are no words.

But then I thought about that.  Was that really true?  The destruction of the space shuttle Challenger was a catastrophe, something that would never be forgotten, but life was full of moments, both good and bad, that so often seemed beyond the purview of language.  Even little things, precious things, were hard to put into words:  a first kiss, moving away from home for the first time, falling in love, saying good-bye.  And didn’t everyone experience their own personal canyons and tragedies?  The death of a loved one, the betrayal of a close friend, the loss of a lifelong dream, blown apart like shrapnel on the wind.

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How could any of these experiences be captured, truly, in words?

Life, I thought, as I lay there, awake, unable to close my eyes.  How can anyone really write about life, the things that matter?  The things that resonate?

Even then, as a junior high student, I knew that, for me, writing was akin to breathing.  I couldn’t imagine a life without it.  But most of my stories as a kid were adventures, space explorations, without much depth or emotion.  I sensed I was arriving at a crossroads.  The way I felt lying there, the thoughts swirling in my head, the ideas and motivations abounding, I wanted so much to be able to convey it all in a story, through the power of the written word.

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Words often seemed so lacking, so trite.  How could raw emotion, the depths of the heart, be expressed through them?  Could they?  Or was the whole thing futile?

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That night, I resolved to try, to learn, to find a way.  And if I didn’t, or couldn’t, I would keep trying, and never give up.  I wanted to do more than just send readers on grand explorations to other planets or faraway eras.  I wanted to be able to move them, to have them see themselves on the page, to laugh and cry and engage with the characters.

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I thought of other stories I had read, where this wonderful thing, this literary sleight of hand, as it were, had happened, where I magically was able to relate to some black-and-white construct on the printed page, the bones and cartilage fleshed out with muscle and skin and heart, imagined and created by a writer decades, or even centuries, ago.

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My hopes and goals as a writer have not changed since that long, sleepless night thirty years ago.  Perhaps all writers, all artists, feel this way.  We want to create something meaningful, something that reaches others and moves them, makes them laugh at the triumphs and cry at the losses, makes them pull for our characters and root for them as if they were old friends.

We want to be able to fill in the gaps, to convey on the page the pain and suffering, the gladness and joy, the broken dreams and irretrievable, lost hopes of childhood, the promise of a better tomorrow in spite of it all.

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We want to write, and communicate, and share, and express . . . when there are no words.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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