I started teaching another memoir class a few weeks ago and every time we’ve met, I’ve encouraged class members to buy and study Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor.
Oh, how I’d love to sit at her feet and learn from her. But second best is learning from her book, a treasure chest overflowing with jewels.
Among other gems, Priscilla praises writers who “collect words the way some numismatists collect coins.”
But she withholds praise for writers who,
on the other hand, approach “language passively . . .
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 continues, “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 are hunting neither big words nor pompous words nor Latinate words. . . . They are not trying to be fancy or decorative.”
Did you get that? Not big, pompous, fancy, or decorative.
Words that don’t make readers reach for the dictionary.
Also avoid words that draw attention to yourself, words that might cause readers to say, “Oh, what a clever writer he is!” That interrupts readers. It lures them out of your story.
Instead, use words that keep readers involved in your memoir, words that make your places, characters, and experiences come to life.
Priscilla quotes award-winning author 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.” *
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 must confess: 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 okay about being a word nerd, I’ll share a few words I’ve gathered, words that would meet with Priscilla’s approval:
mirth, glee, merrymaking
I have also worked on another type of lexicon Priscilla recommends, a word book for an era in which several of my vignettes are set, 1950-1965—and oh! What fun! What memories!
So, be honest: Are you a word nerd?
If so, leave some of your favorite words
in the comments below so we can all enjoy them.
If you’re not a word nerd,
give Priscilla’s Lexicon Practice a try.
Creating your own word book
could open for you a new world of writing.
*Annie Proulx interviewed by Michael Upchurch, The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction, 248. Quoted by Priscilla Long, The Writer’s Portable Mentor, 23.