Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Precise Words: Confessions of a Thesaurus Junky

I inherited a disability from my forebears.  My disability is a problem with word recall. It's never been diagnosed and I don't know if it even exists in the annals of neuro-medicine, and I can understand why. Though it seemed to afflict all four siblings in my mother's family and my grandfather, I attributed it to laziness when they'd send me off to find the "thing" sitting on the "watchamakallit." I figured my grandfather was just another spoiled Italian patriarch when he'd sit at the head of the table, growing ever more irritated as someone lifted items to determine which one he wanted. Salad dressing? Bread? Wine? That is, until I found myself struggling with the same problem, and not after menopause like everyone else––though that did exacerbate the situation. (Exacerbate! I'm having a good day.)

That's the funny thing about it. On rare days I will sit down to write and feel like I'm channeling William F. Buckley, but most days I'll be writing away and suddenly hit a wall. I know the word I want is out there somewhere. It just won't come to me.

For others in my family, this problem was more of a nuisance for the people around them, especially as my Mom's family all had quick tempers. Better to go off and figure out what the "thing" was than challenge them to come up with the word. But I'm a writer, and on difficult days it can be devastating. 

The best I can describe it is like watching Jeopardy. Have you ever been ready to blurt out the answer––well question––and it wasn't there? Then the contestant says, "What is Harper's Ferry?" and you knew it, and yet you didn't.

That's how it is sometimes when I write. I know the word I want, maybe I even had it when writing the piece in my head while working out at the gym, only now I can't find it. That's when I do what I warn other writers to be careful about––I turn to my thesaurus.

The thesaurus can be dangerous for new writers who just want to sound more "writerly." That's because words have precise meanings. No two words mean exactly the same thing or else we wouldn't need two separate words. Often writers, who are trying too hard, end up blurring their meaning, not to mention sounding amateur in their attempts to sound like a pro.

My purpose in turning to the thesaurus is different. I use it to jar my memory. Generally, I can come up with a word that, while not the one I'm looking for, has the same general meaning. By looking that word up in the thesaurus, I often find the word I had in mind––and occasionally a better one.

I've often wished I could list my disability in my bio. You know, the way the accomplishments of someone like Irish writer and artist Christy Brown were considered all the more remarkable because of his severe cerebral palsy. Or the way the writings of a kid from the projects with a 5th grade education who's writing from prison will get extra notice. 

"Despite being diagnosed with early onset verbal deficit disorder (VDD), Nannette Croce has managed to work her disability into her writing style, focusing more on plot than language and often finding workable substitutes when the precise word eludes her."

Alas, I'm stuck instead with being considered a mediocre writer.

Stress-related VDD can hit the best of them:


sapheyerblu said...

LOL great post.

Hello, my name is Christine, and I too am a Thesaurus junkie. It started out with just a word or two, but soon escalated to several hours of scanning my thesaurus for that perfect word. By the time I realized that I had a problem, I was barking at people as I was sure they'd stolen my thesaurus when it was still under my pillow the whole time.
My name is Christine and I have a thesaurus addiction.

Nannette Croce said...

Hi Christine. Admission is the first step toward recovery.

trucks said...

I be presumptuous but of course I don't really believe I am at all .


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