Saturday, January 7, 2012

Gather “crackly” words for your memoir


A few months ago I bought The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long. Oh, how I’d love to sit at her feet and take a class from her! Sigh. But second best is her book: a treasure chest jam-packed with jewels.

Among other gems, Priscilla praises writers who “collect words the way some numismatists collect coins.”

She also knows about writers who, on the other hand, approach "language passively.… The writer is using only words that come to mind, or words he grew up with, or words she stumbles upon while reading The New York Times.… He strives for expression with rather general, conventional diction [word choice] that has little to offer in the way of echo, color, or texture.”

Priscilla says, “The writers of deep and beautiful works spend real time gathering words. They learn the names of weeds and tools and types of roof. They make lists of color words (ruby, scarlet, cranberry, brick). They savor not only the meanings, but also the musicality of words. They are hunting neither big words nor pompous words nor Latinate words but mainly words they like.… They are not trying to be fancy or decorative.”

Did you get that? Not big, pompous, fancy, or decorative.

Words that don’t require a dictionary.

One caution: Avoid using words to draw attention to yourself, words that might cause your readers to say, “Oh, what a clever writer he is!” That interrupts. That lures readers out of your story.

Instead, use words that keep readers involved in your story, words that make your places, characters, and experiences come to life.

Priscilla quotes Annie Proulx who admits to collecting and reading dictionaries (!) and to gathering words:

“I have big notebooks, page after page of words that I like or find interesting or crackly.… From time to time I will, if I feel a section [of writing] is a bit limp, take a couple of days and just do dictionary work and recast the sentences so that they have more power because their words are not overused.” * (emphasis mine)

That’s important: Avoid overused words.

Priscilla encourages The Lexicon Practice: a deliberate, ongoing gathering of words and phrases. She explains:

“There are two parts to the practice. One is to make your own Lexicon (word book) and the other is to collect words and phrases in a list that pertains to the piece you are currently working on.… Writers who do the Lexicon Practice have left in the dust [those who don’t]. Writers who don’t do it … are pretty much stuck with television words, newspaper words, cereal-box words.”

Now, I’ll let you in on a secret—a confession of sorts: I thought I was the only one who collected words! I was giddy upon learning from Priscilla that I was not a freak! A nerd, yes. A geek, yes. But a freak—no! (Whew!)

So, now that I feel OK about being a word nerd, I’ll share a few words I’ve gathered lately, words that would meet with Priscilla’s approval: they are not big words, not pompous, fancy, or decorative. They don’t require a dictionary.

thrumming, thrum
mirth, jollity, glee, merrymaking

I’ve also been working on the second type of lexicon Priscilla recommends, a word book for an era in which several of my vignettes are set, 1950-1960 and—oh, my! It’s so much fun! More on that another day.

For now, though:  Are you a word nerd? If so, leave some of your favorite words in a message below so we all can enjoy them.

If you’re not a word nerd, give Priscilla’s Lexicon Practice a try. Creating your own word book could lead to a new realm of writing for you.

Happy writing!

*Resources and links:
Annie Proulx interviewed by Michael Upchurch, The Glimmer Train Guide to Wrong Fiction, 248. Quoted by Priscilla Long, The Portable Mentor, 23.


  1. I admit that I am not a word nerd though I do recognize the importance of a larger, richer vocabulary.

    I do gather words but not often enough.

    Two of the words I've gathered are "ludicrous" and "ennui" but these words sound "big and pompous to me to actually use anywhere. They were words I picked up along the way to expand my vocabulary.

    I like the idea to keep a notebook of gathered words like Annie Proulx. I never realized she was an American with Canadian connection. I always thought she was a Canadian ;-)

    Hope you're having a wonderful weekend.

  2. I love the idea of creating a word book to help add depth, description and texture to my writing. Especially since it sounds like the goal is to enhance the piece without detracting from your natural voice and style. What a perfect take-anywhere project! Thanks, Linda


  3. Good post, Mom! But I probably shouldn't use the word "good" should I? I do love this though and not only will I use/do it myself but it is something I work on with my students and I will use your ideas and explanations with them. Thanks! :)

  4. I cannot confess to being a word nerd, but I do love them! I also like the idea of a creating my own word book though -- another project!

  5. I love words also but realize that I am lazy about using them. I get so caught up in getting my story across that I do tend to use what words come to mind. Thanks for the reminder!

  6. I probably don't classify as a word nerd, but I love the idea of gathering words. I may have to try this. Thanks.

  7. I've enjoyed reading everyone's comments. :) Thanks for stopping by.

    Joyful, thanks for leaving "ludicrous" and "ennui." They are good words--understandable and straightforward. I don't think they sound "pompous," but if you wouldn't use them in a conversation, probably you wouldn't use them in a written piece. That brings us to De's important observation:

    De said, "the goal is to enhance the piece without detracting from your natural voice and style." Absolutely! We need to write with our own "voice." I think that's what Priscilla Long meant in the quote in the picture above about using "words you like, words that strike your fancy, words you want to own." Thanks, De, for pointing that out. :)

    Karen: I would love to be a student in your class! You're a gifted, ethusiastic teacher, and you are an excellent writer, and you have discovered your own "voice" in your writing style. It's graceful, even poetic. I always enjoy what you write, always.

    Sherrey, Recovering Church Lady, and Olive Tree: I hope you enjoy collecting words. It can become almost an addiction--but such an enjoyable one! I read today about someone's "exquisite hands." It was referring to the guy who starred in the Harry Potter movies. I keep a list of words and phrases on my computer, but some people prefer to write them by hand in a special journal, and that's a rich experience in itself. When you come upon a word that sounds like your "voice," look for a place to use it. Most of all, have fun!