The Almost Right Word: A Talk by Stephen Kiernan
By Annalisa Parent
The basic building block of writing is, of course, the word. As famous British poet and critic Samuel Coleridge once wrote “Prose is words in their best order—poetry is the best words in the best order.”
As writers, therefore, regardless of genre, we have an obligation to our readers to choose the best word and the best order. But how?
Stephen Kiernan, author of The Curiosity and Last Rights, gave some insight on this quandary in a talk to The League of Vermont Writers, January 31, 2015 at The Double Tree Hotel in South Burlington.
Kiernan addressed both the importance of sound and of specificity in language.
“Sound is a part of what you’re doing,” he told the writers present. “We’ve got some kind of internal trumpet that helps us hear the sound of words.”
As an illustration, he asked volunteers to give two opposite words in a non-English language. Based on sound alone, he encouraged participants to guess the meaning of the words. For example the French grand (big) has an open sound, a big sound, whereas its opposite petit (small) has a closed, small sound.
Kiernan encouraged writers to consider the sound in words chosen to convey ideas. He argued that sound alone, and its deeper linguistic underpinnings, could determine the best word for a given writing piece.
He traced the painstaking process of choosing the right word in his own writing, for sound and for specificity. In a scene in his upcoming novel The Hummingbird to be released September 8, 2015, Kiernan traced the process of determining the right composer to express melancholy. He considered not only the works of the composer, but also the feel of that musician’s name within the context of the scene.
“I tried all kinds of composers, Beethoven, of course, and Handel and even Tchaikovsky,” Kiernan said. “But when I wrote Bach, the single syllable of it, all the resonance and religiosity, it was like a period, a punctuation mark on this man’s life. I literally pushed back from my desk and clapped my hands. God bless Bach, his name was simpler and more direct …like a gavel banging.”
Word choice, he said, is the painstaking work of rewriting. “I’m a much better rewriter than a writer,” he said.
But it can also be fun. On an easel, LVW President Alyssa Berthiaume took dictation from audience participants on words with a quality of specificity and sound. “I like the word hurricane because it’s raising Cain in a hurry,” one participant contributed.
Kiernan urged writers to choose the most descriptive word possible as the group brainstormed synonyms for the act of moving forward. Investigating the difference between words like run and gallop, Kiernan pointed out “gallop gives the reader a place to go and they can do the imagining.”
“It’s an enormous privilege, writers, that readers let you in,” Kiernan summarized echoing Coleridge’s call over a century ago. “We have a responsibility to be fastidious. We take white paper, and we make dark marks on it, and that makes us cry.”
Kiernan referenced these works in his talks
The Waters William Matthews
Book of My Nights Li Yung Li
For Desire Addonizio
Politics and the English Language George Orwell
This article originally appeared in League Lines: The League of Vermont Writers’ Newsletter.