2019

The soufflé of writing

I have to say, I’m becoming addicted to George Will’s columns. The reasons are beaucoup.

In part, it’s because of his captious polemics eviscerating Republican splenetic epigones. In part, it’s because of his pluperfect, glissading syntax. And in part, it’s because of his ability to seamlessly incorporate delightful metaphors, allusions, and allegories such as comparing Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to a windsock and relating sycophantic Republicans who claim to have their ears to the ground to Winston Churchill’s observation that “it is difficult to look up to anyone in that position.”

Visual imagery. Agree with Will or not, you get it and likely chuckle imagining the scenes.

In Will’s writing there are no tergiversations or equivocations, but he’s been accused, understandably, of written and verbal circumlocution. I have likewise been charged, though I admit that compared to Will’s efficacy of style, I am like the bewildered kindergartener at a seminar on string theory he used to compare the POTUS when he is forced to interact with experienced and accomplished people in governance and economics. Okay, maybe not that deficient.

Will acknowledged his circumlocutory style when he parenthetically apologized while flaying Graham. “During the government shutdown,” he wrote, “Graham’s tergiversations — sorry, this is the precise word — have amazed.”

Fortunately, the editors provided a direct link to Merriam-Webster for tergiversations, which pleased me not only because I could readily learn what the word meant and, thus, concur it fit with precision, but also to see that I am in his, or the Washington Post’s, company when it comes to referencing Merriam-Webster as the consummate authority in usage.

Using non-plebian language can be a challenge for the writer, assuming the writer’s vocabulary treasure chest is sufficiently capacious, because a she/he must always keep in mind her/his audience. For some though, their trove’s paucity is commentary on the declination in America of the Queen’s language.

Higher-level vocabulary is the bane of the bumper-sticker, thirty-second, monosyllabic intelligentsia. Like deer in the headlights, they become dazed when confronted with it and resort to sputtering epithets such as “smarty pants!”

I once worked with a teacher with an effulgent intellect who squandered it on her drill-and-kill approach to vocabulary. I admired her didactical efforts because her students consistently surpassed expectations and outperformed their peers on standardized tests. But, so what? Could their puissant vocabulary help them analyze in a daedal manner the involuted, labyrinthian nuances of Joyce, Faulkner, or Dostoyevsky?

Vocabulary aside, the flaunting of basic grammatical concepts is disheartening.

Rules, schmules. Verb a noun or noun a verb. One can do an ask rather than ask for a donation or gift a present rather than give one. One can speak in the conditional then declare in the indicative: “I would tell you not to Thesaurusize to impress your audience.”

Argghhh!!! Nails on the extinct slate chalkboard, dammit!

I miss James Jackson Kilpatrick. You might recall him as Shana Alexander’s sparring partner on 60 Minutes’ Point-Counterpoint. I’m not sure whether it was Kilpatrick’s conservatism or his Southern lilt that irritated me more, but I loved reading his “Writer’s Art” columns that focused on language usage, often the butchering of it. I regularly put transparencies of them on the overhead for my juniors to diagnose and deconstruct, which led to some raucous class discussions. And then, I put them to the task. For if a writer can intentionally write obliquely, chances are quite good he/she can do the opposite facilely.

Like a soufflé, writing ought to be enjoyed both in its creation and consumption. But, like a soufflé, a piece can fall flat in less-skilled hands.

John Steinbeck wrote, “In utter loneliness, a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.” Such as expostulating on the craft of writing.

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