How to Write with Vitality

Posted in Uncategorized by Steph Auteri on October 4, 2007
Tags: , , ,

dictionary page.

So my buddy Charlotte, knowing that I’m a total word-nerd, gave me this copy of Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite that she received through YPG. An obvious play on Strunk & White, the subheading averred that it was “A writer’s guide to bold, contemporary style,” and a flip through the TOC promised chapters on adverbs, thesauri, foreign languages, hyper-hyphenation, semicolons, ohgod I’m getting excited all over again just listing all the stuff in this book.

Now, before I go on, I should mention that the only topic on my bookshelf that beats out the sex stuff (it’s my niche, sort of) is the writing how-to section. Stephen King’s On Writing. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees. The Art of the Interview. The New New Journalism. I could go on and on.

And on.

But I never got into those books on grammar and all the other nitty-gritty technicalities. Spunk & Bite, however, is not your typical tome on usage and composition. Rather, it turns Strunk & White on its ear and urges the burgeoning writer to take chances with his or her prose, experimenting with word combinations, enallage, and the like, basically encouraging one to play god with the english language.

Some of my favorite suggestions, many of which I already use in my own writing:

  • Collect words as you would coins. Or comic books. Or those shot glasses from your college days. Being able to infuse your writing with widely unfamiliar language can give it an extra spark. Some of the gorgeous words that Arthur Plotnik lays out for us are “solipsistic”; “purled”; “coruscating”; and “darkling.” They’re the types of words you want to whisper aloud over and over, wrapping your tongue around them…letting the deliciousness of those round vowels and rough consonants reverberate on the air.
  • Upgrade your colors. Alain de Botton writes of, “…a counter spread with hams as brown as violins.” GaryShteyngart writes of, “T-shirts of…narcolepsy gray…” Metaphors like these help the vision of a color hover before the reader’s very eyes.The word “saffron” makes the color yellow seem that much more beautiful. And I love the word”claret” in place of “red.”
  • Create neologisms — new words or word combinations. I like to think that, as writers, we are given license to invent to new words whenever we damn well please.
  • Even more coveted than my thesaurus is my English-Italian dictionary. As a student of the language for five years (admittedly, I can’t even put together a sentence at this point), what I loved most were the rolling”r”s and skipping “l”s and I would get all nerd-excited whenever my prof asked me to read aloud a passage in class (because, of course, I could pull off the best accent, with the most perfect pronunciation; we’ll overlook the fact that friends laugh at my gusto with the language when ordering in Italian restaurants). La melanzana. Il pomodoro. Parlo un poco d’Italiano. Gosh, it just sounds pretty. Who in heck even cares what it means!?
  • Enallage is pretty popular these days. It’s when you shift the functions of nouns, adjectives, and verbs to to give a word new punch and meaning. A popular example is “I heart New York,” in which the word “heart,” which is typically used as a noun, is being used as a verb.
  • Ooh! Hyper-hyphenation. I used it before when I created the word “nerd-excited.” I use it all the time, actually, and it’s probably a bit overkill, but it can sometimes add a bit of pizzazz to your writing. That and it’s fun.

That’s all I’m gonna give you, but I highly suggest that you pick up your own copy of the book to get some more wordplay ideas. Because I’m keeping mine. As Plotnik writes, “charge like some mad lepidopterist through the meadows of language — every kind of meadow — and net the butterflies, let them loose in your pages.”

p.s. Some books I’ve added to the ol’ wishlist, recommended by Plotnik:

  • Mark McCutcheon’s Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary
  • David Grambs’s The Describer’s Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms and Literary Quotations

At the moment, I only own the M-W Garfield dictionary. Perhaps it’s time for an upgrade.

p.p.s. Bonus pic of my hubby showing his dictionary some love! (obviously, I should get a photography how-to as well)

dictionary love.