Eventually, the words get you.
You struggle with plots, with character development, with the godawful job of pulling it all together. And while you are wrestling with that angel, the words he is made of creep through your pores and invade your brain. They become the plaque that stops the neurons firing.
It happened to James Thurber. Much of his last two books, Lanterns and Lances and the posthumously published Credos and Curios,
were compendia of words that had dug their little claws into his mind and wouldn’t let go, long lists of words that had, perhaps, only sounds in common, or were all place names or first names beginning with O. He packed them up and disguised them as essays and stories, and his most devoted fans slogged their way through, but even they knew it was crazy.
Thurber had shown signs of the word disease much earlier. After “The Night the Bed Fell” and “The Night the Ghost Got In,” he wrote “More Alarms at Night.” In it, you hear the Siren song of verbal miscellany. One of the episodes recounted in “More Alarms” begins when the words won’t let Thurber sleep:
I had been trying all afternoon, in vain, to think of the name Perth Amboy. It seems now like a very simple name to recall and yet on the day in question I thought of every other town in the country, as well as such words and names and phrases as terra cotta, Walla-Walla, bill of lading, vice versa, hoity-toity, Pall Mall, Bodley Head, Schumann-Heink, etc., without even coming close to Perth Amboy…. I began to suspect that one might lose one’s mind over some such trivial mental tic as a futile search for terra firma Piggly Wiggly Gorgonzola Prester John Arc de Triomphe Holy Moses Lares and Penates….
When I read that for the first time, I nearly fell off the end of my mother’s bed, laughing. Mother, propped up at the head and reading herself to sleep, listened with a grin as I read it aloud, choking with laughter. But in Thurber’s later books, the humor had drained out, leaving only the words.
Thurber’s woes came back to me when I read Howard Elman’s Farewell, Ernest Hebert’s wonderful finale to the Darby Chronicles. In the first book of the Chronicles, The Dogs of March, Howard Elman is an illiterate adult, a man with a good eye and a wondering mind but few words with which to order his experience. His rural New Hampshire world is being invaded by the come-heres, wordy, untrustworthy flatlanders who end by taking not only Howard’s land but also his children into their insubstantial world of hot air and incomprehensible notions.
In the Farewell, Howard has learned to read, and death approaches. He is now up against the next generation of strangers, who are obsessed with ones and zeroes and with an ‘ecosystem’ apparently coterminous with, but different from, the New Hampshire forests he loves. They seem to have invaded, not from the flat lands, but from Mars. One of them is his son, who has changed his name.
In this milieu, words have begun to bother Howard. You accumulate them, they name new things that may or may not exist, and then when you put them up against each other, you can see that they don’t make sense. What do they mean, “the prime evil forest”? “Why does ‘purposes’ sound so much like ‘porpoises’?” Howard has begun talking to himself in a final attempt to ‘combobulate’ his world. “How to say it and make it make sense?”
Perhaps it’s a problem of scale. Thurber vanished into minutiae. From Howard Elman’s point of view, his son’s new friends operate in a world of vast, airy nothings. All their words are code words, but the code refers to nothing he can get a grip on. Behind the airy nothings he can see only more airy nothings.
For those of us less talented than James Thurber and Ernest Hebert, a focus on the words themselves just produces ‘darlings’ – abominable cutenesses and dreadfully, dreadfully clever repartée. Once these insinuate themselves into a first draft, the novice writer can find them impossible to dislodge, even knowing that the reader will find them impossible to stomach. When the words begin to preen themselves this way, when you feel the poison creeping into your writerly veins, what to do? Here is one suggestion: imagine this question from an innocent, eager child reader:
“But what happened next?”