Today I have Paul Heinz from Sucker Literary on my blog. Sucker is a new online magazine showcasing new and undiscovered writers of young adult literature.
Guest Post from Paul Heinz
In my dream, I’m either on Oprah or on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, but it could just as easily be The View or The Ellen DeGeneres Show or The Tonight Show. In this alternate universe, authors are treated with esteem and appear regularly on talk shows, so right off the bat there’s a sense that reality has been suspended, and since I’m actually being interviewed, I appear to have had some success as a writer, hence pushing the dream towards the realm of fantasy.
But the next part is far too realistic.
I’m asked a question. Oprah, having apparently come out of talk-show retirement, asks “Are there authors out there, successful ones, whose work you find prosaic?”
Prosaic. Prosaic. A word I should know. Do know. Sort of. I mean, if I read it in a book, I’d probably be able to deduce its meaning. But to actually have to respond to it in front of millions of people who are only watching me because the next guest is Tom Cruise? Well, that’s the stuff nightmares are made of.
Not knowing the meaning of a word is a reoccurring theme in my dreams, for vocabulary has never been my forte. Sure, I can string together words to create an effective sentence, but if you ask me to use demur and demure correctly in a sentence, I’m going to be in trouble.
I take some solace in that the average educated English-speaking person knows an average of 17,200 base words, a mere percentage of the total number of entries in the Oxford American Dictionary (over 180,000) and the Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (over 600,000). (Base words are “word families.” So the base word “love” might extend to words like lovely, lovable, lover, etc.). There are words I clearly know, like the ones I’ve written thus far in this blog. There are words I clearly do not know, like rehoboam. This I can accept. What kills me are the words I kinda sorta know but would be hard-pressed to define or use in conversation. My kids have exposed this gaping hole in my chest of knowledge numerous times when asking me the meaning of a word that I thought I knew, but couldn’t for the life of me explain. (“Well, capricious means…um…why don’t you look it up?”) And even when I sort of know a word, like bereft (meaning: void of), I would never use it in conversation for fear of making a fool of myself in case I used it incorrectly. I once used the word “indoctrinate” when I actually meant to say “inoculate,” which is sad an embarrassing, but I DO happen to know the word that describes the misuse of another word – malapropism. I should have that word tattooed on my forehead.
In an effort to reinvigorate my quest for knowledge that took a major detour about fifteen years ago (two daughters), I’ve reintroduced an old custom of mine of looking up words unknown to me while reading novels. If it’s a word I feel I can use in my own writing, I jot it down and later transfer it to an Excel spreadsheet of vocabulary words. I find this much more useful than, say, following the word of the day at Dictionary.com, because so often these words are obscure to the point of uselessness. I’m not sure I’m going to impress my readers by using a word like tergiversate. When I see a word in a book I’m reading, I at least have some assurance that it’s known and in use.
Widening one’s lexicon is something all writers should do, so that when the moment arises we can tap into the perfect word for the perfect situation instead of using five words that don’t do nearly as good a job. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with writing directly and plainly if it’s done well and if that’s your style. But sometimes a word can really enhance one’s message. Consider the following two sentences:
The man walked in, clothes soaked and dirty, and plopped down on the bench with a saturated slap.
The bedraggled man walked in and plopped down on the bench with a saturated slap.
Neither sentence will win me any awards, but bedraggled is the perfect word for this situation, and one I wouldn’t have even known existed if I hadn’t written it down some years ago in my Excel spreadsheet of words I’ve come across.
The book I’m reading now, Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, is a fairly accessible read, but that didn’t stop me from not knowing the meaning of the following words (how many of these could you use in conversation?):
Imprecation. Praxis. Ranunculus. Filigreed. Exhortatory. Incipient.
And this is from a mainstream writer! Give me a copy of Ulysses and I’d be toast.
Sure. Some words, even after I catalogue them, don’t sink into my list of usable words, but over the years a few have managed to squeeze into my lexicon (so if I’m average, I now know 17,202 words). I can now successfully use the word nonplussed (completely perplexed) in a sentence, and I’ve recently added aplomb (self-confidence). I’m still waiting to come across the word that means, “Ineptitude at expanding one’s vocabulary.”
And yes, I now know what prosaic means. Do you? If not, here’s a hint: for some of you, it might describe your opinion of this blog.
Paul Heinz is a Chicago author, writer, blogger, radio essayist, songwriter, musician and keyboardist. In “The Missing Ingredient,” his short story that kicks off issue two of Sucker Literary Magazine, Alex is living the rock and roll dream, playing bass and singing for the power trio, Aunt Sally’s Nightmare. But when his bandmates invite Maureen to sing lead, it soon becomes a battle for control. Or could it be a battle for something else?
Follow Paul at www.paulheinz.com, at LinkedIn, or at PaulHeinzLive on Facebook and Twitter.
Excerpt from “The Missing Ingredient” by Paul Heinz, Sucker Literary Volume 2
I’m not really listening. I’m concentrating on the new key, but it feels good. It feels right, and once we hit the chorus the second time, I’m finally at ease with my hand on the fretboard and almost forget that I’m hearing a girl’s voice instead of my own. Playing bass without having to sing at the same time is like releasing shackles from my hands. I play uninhibitedly, exploring phrases I would never dream of doing while singing vocals. I glance at Maureen, and her mascara-lined eyes flash at me just for a second, and her lips curl into a brief smile before she does the “Ooohh, oh oh, ooooh, oh oh” part during the bridge. Her skin isn’t as pale now; she’s flushed with energy, and I can see how she could lead an audience into a fury, how—in this context—she could be considered attractive. Sexy, even. She moves her hips ever-so-slightly and shakes her head during the pauses so that her hair swings against her cheeks. Jeremy, no doubt high on testosterone by this point, is hitting the toms with such ferocity it feels like the ceiling will collapse on top of us.
Once again, we hit the final chord of the song, but this time with purpose. With meaning. Tyler’s feedback isn’t added just for the hell of it. Now it’s imperative. The song is begging for feedback. As Tyler kneels down in front of his amp to conjure up the perfect tone, Jeremy rides the cymbals a few seconds longer than usual, and Maureen, lost in the spirit of the tune, exhales an orgasmic “aaaahhhhhhhhhhhh,” by which point I’m so jazzed, I feel a boner coming on.
The song is over, and a deafening silence replaces what just seconds before was a wave of energy. All four of us glance back and forth between each other, waiting to see who’ll say what first. Tyler clears his throat and smiles, because he knows we’ve just experienced something transcendental. “So, what do you think, Alex?”
Sucker will reopen the doors for Volume 3 submissions. One day ONLY, August 1, 2013. Find the guidelines HERE.
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