Finding the Right Words
I was hoping to have a book review ready for you today, but I was a little distracted this past week from finishing the book in question, so it will have to wait. As soon as I finish it, I’ll post a review–regardless of the schedule. However, the thing that distracted me from my reading this week reminded me of a challenge I have come across more than once.
Monday morning, I awoke with a sense that all was not right with my body. I felt stiff and achy, but still essentially able to function, so I continued my usual daily activities. Tuesday morning, the achy stiffness had not subsided, and there was some pain beginning to creep into the picture, particularly around my lower back. By Tuesday afternoon, the pain had increased to the point where getting up was a slow ordeal. Walking soon became reduced to a shuffle. And anything involving reaching to the floor was a laughable fantasy. Wednesday I worked from home, from my bed, getting up only when necessary. And I mean bladder-full necessary. My lower back and general region ached, like I’d been sitting for days. And if I moved the wrong way (or what seemed to me a perfectly reasonable way to move), I was rewarded with a sharp stabbing pain, the like of which I had last encountered when I had a kidney stone. If you’ve not experienced that kind of pain, it’s the kind of pain that, no matter how much of a grin-and-bear-it, suffer-in-silence kind of person you are, you have to vocalize it. It’s almost a reflex reaction, as if my body is trying to tell me how much it hurts. And anything that happens to be in your hand at the time (like my poor wife’s shoulder) feels the crush of your fingers. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
Thursday, enough was enough. I went to the doctor. I’ll spare you the details, but he diagnosed a herniated disc, and prescribed me the appropriate medication (a corticosteroid to decrease the swelling, and muscle relaxant and pain reliever to use as necessary).
It was while I was waiting to see the doctor that the thought came to mind: “If he asks me to describe the pain, how would I respond?” My initial reaction was to use the adjective “indescribable.” But then I remembered this challenge: if you are a writer, words like “indescribable” should never be a part of your vocabulary. As a writer, every experience should be describable. After all, people turn to wordsmiths to help them put feelings and experiences into words all the time. Writers and poets are constantly quoted because they put these “indescribable” feelings into words for everyone else. It’s part of our job, and our service to humanity (if I may be so grand). Imagine if Robert Burns had written, “My love is like… oh I don’t know… it’s indescribable!”
So for a writer to say “the pain was indescribable” is, frankly, a cop-out. It’s falling down on the job. I should be able to come up with words. Maybe not the perfect words (at least at first), but I should have sufficient command of language and imagination to relate my experience to someone else. Communicating feelings and experiences (whether real or fictional) is what we do.
You have already read my attempt to relate my pain to you. Hopefully you understand it; I hope you never have to feel it. If you are a writer, how do you feel about that challenge? It sounds quite daunting, but on the other hand, I think it’s the kind of creative challenge we need to set ourselves constantly. It’s part of observing the world around us, paying attention to life’s details. Asking ourselves how we would put into words a sunset, a rain storm, the feeling of that first kiss, or getting dumped, or stubbing your toe against a wall.
When applied to our novels, its these details that elevate our story-telling. If ever one of my characters gets a herniated disc, I think I’m prepared.