A few years ago, I realized that I was writing for myself rather than others. As a kid, I had a bit of a reputation as a writer, having written short fiction stories from a young age. These were mostly rip-offs of books I was reading at the time. From the ages of seven to ten, I was obsessed with a series called The Edge Chronicles, and I wrote a shallow recreation of Beyond the Deepwoods called Into the Thick Woods, if my memory serves. I submitted it to a short story contest under my little sister’s name and “she” won a $50 Barnes and Noble gift card, which I used in turn to buy more Edge Chronicles books.
Whenever I had to write a short story for class in grade school, I’d lift the plot of whatever I happened to be reading at the time. I went to French school, so I was particularly fond of Asterix et Obelix, Tintin, Les Schtroumpfs (the Smurfs), and Benoît Brisefer, and I’d write thinly-veiled adaptations. Great artists steal, right?
In my early teens, I would write chapters of an original novel called The Magic of the Desert and give them to family members as Christmas gifts. These were wordy affairs stocked with the latest delights pulled from my trusty thesaurus. The plot itself was a shoddy mashup of Eragon and the Lord of the Rings, two of my youthful favorites.
Words were competitive for me; I felt that accumulating as many as possible might give me an edge, somehow. I was a quiet, short kid who, due to family circumstances, bounced around between schools. Consequently, I didn’t have many long-term friendships. For those of you that didn’t go to French school (Lycée), they place an extremely strong focus on dictation (dictées) in primary and middle school. Since French grammar and conjugation is substantially more complex than in English, French children face weekly ordeals in which the teacher recites a text and they have to spell it out correctly. Easy, right? Well, miss an accent aigu here and, a silent feminine e here, and an accent circonflexe there and all of sudden you have failed and are rewarded with deux heures de colle (two hours of detention, literally “glue”).
This all made a very strong impression on me. The dreaded troika of conjugaison, grammaire, and orthographie imparted in me the feeling that words were of paramount importance. One particularly vivid memory dates to my time at the French international school in Warsaw, Poland, where my family relocated in the early 00's. I was about 11 at the time, and had moved there the year prior, friendless, a strange hybrid british-american kid in a french school in Poland. My teacher was castigating my classmates for their poor performance on a dictée: l’anglais vous a battu encore! (the English kid has beaten you again!) While her outburst did not help my popularity with my classmates, I did take some pleasure in beating the native speakers at their own game. In a tumultuous world, grammar was definite and predictable. I liked that.
Like lot of other bookish kids, I found in novels a ready substitute for reality. Fantasy and sci-fi were particular favourites. JRR Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, C.S. Lewis, Brian Jacques, Douglas Adams, Orson Scott Card, and Frank Herbert were my companions.
People sometimes ask how and why I accumulated so many esoteric words. It started simply enough. When I came across a word or phrase I liked, I’d write it down in a notebook or on a scrap of paper. I wanted to cram as many into my head as possible. I’d later rationalize this as enabling me to communicate with precision, but the motivator was simply curiosity and a competitive instinct. I took pride in my vocabulary, as if a large inventory of words was something I would be able to redeem for a plastic toy at an arcade later on.
At first an externality of a bookish childhood, the practice later grew into an obsession, as my interests deepened into etymology, typography, and grammar. I’m ashamed to admit that at one time, I genuinely prided myself on knowing the differences between various style guides. I have spent more time than I would care to admit designing fonts from scratch, investigating the origins of words, and trying to popularize neologisms that I had coined. Knowing a smattering of various romance languages helped. Beneath the surface, a few core proto languages explain a huge fraction of lexical variation.
A surefire way to identify someone who has learned most of their words from a lone bookish childhood is mispronunciations. If you’ve only ever read a word, and never heard it spoken, you are liable to pronounce it wrongly. I’ll never forget a moment during a high school debate competition in which I plucked “anathema” (anna theema) out of my repertoire and the judge kindly corrected my pronunciation. Humiliation.
Despite these shortcomings, there really is a thrill in finding precisely the right word or phrase in context. The right insertion almost makes a satisfying clunk in my brain. Words have feelings to me, their very construction and form has a synesthetic nature. Susurrus. Expunge. Melancholy. Glottal. Clarion. Even words that sound nothing like what they mean have an irresistible sardonic flavor to them. Pulchritude (beauty?). Felicific (relating to happiness?).
When I’d read a passage with a particularly delightful turn of phrase, I’d find myself impressed and envious. I hated that I couldn’t perform at an elite level like these authors could. And I wanted to be like them. But this tendency would cause me much grief later on.
Much of my early writing found a home in various school newspapers. I wrote ghastly op-eds on forgettable topics, but did so with ostentatious, flowery prose. This impressed some people, but informed few. In time, I became a caricature of myself, leaning in to the stereotype of that “dreadfully clever boy” and my writing became a semantically empty mess — the equivalent of an ornate, but non-load-bearing, corinthian column.
As Orwell says, “all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.” Well there was no mystery in my case: through insecurity, I wanted to appear clever. And I suppose this worked, but I doubt anyone was particularly impressed by my writing. Today, when I notice other writers producing overly ornate prose, I feel pity.
I don’t exactly recall when the revelation ultimately hit me. I think it was sometime in my undergraduate years. I read philosophy: the faculty was perched, almost precariously, on cliffs overlooking the North Sea on the east coast of Scotland. My primary memory of that period involves being repeatedly upbraided for compromising clarity in favor of style. I eventually learned my lesson and realized that writing ought to be primarily an exercise in transporting meaning into the mind of the reader. Anything else is largely unnecessary. While carefully crafted sentences can be engaging and enhance a text, only the merest ornamentation is necessary to break the tedium.
Thus I decided that I would surrender, or at least cut back, those tendencies accumulated over my first two decades. I had to unlearn everything I had sloppily taught myself about writing. Orwell was a guru to me in that transition. In his essays about writing plainly, he makes it clear that his stylistic choice is not a gambit to appeal to the common man. Instead, his famously plain style was a consequence of his view that complexity in language was an instrument of obfuscation. No surprise that his books are taught in grade school today, as his writing is innately accessible. That gives it an enduring strength. Although I’m sure that resisting the aesthetic impulse gave him a pang or two during that tuberculotic sojourn on Barnhill, the Jura cottage where he penned 1984.
For me, the struggle of writing is chiefly one of vanity versus utility. Being concise is hard. It requires painfully shedding text that you’ve sweated and labored over. Being sufficiently humble that you are willing to convey ideas into the heads of your readers at the expense of demonstrating your skill with words — that is the challenge. But as with all asceticism, there’s a sublime joy in restraint. The best writers must learn it. Writing is for the reader, after all.