Using words like flints

Writing’s all about the words, right? Doesn’t matter if they’re printed, pixellated, spoken or whatever – it’s the words that tell the story. They’re the bricks in the wall, the notes on the stave, the beans in the coffee.

But I think they’re more than just the component parts of a sentence. Words are like flints: when you bash them together they make sparks. In short, the words themselves can be part of the creative process.

I like to trawl dictionaries for obscure words nobody’s heard of. I may never actually put them in prose, but they make damn good firelighters. In fact, the more obscure the word, the better. One of my favourite websites for obscure vocabulary is The Phrontistery. I just fished the following from its Compendium of Lost Words:

  • Airgonaut (one who journeys through the air)
  • Bumposopher (one learned in bumps; a phrenologist)
  • Scaevity (unluckiness; left-handedness)

There are stories lurking inside each of these words. Airgonaut is a steampunk fable about the first man to pilot a blimp into outer space. Bumposopher is the whimsical tale of a carnival showman who deletes his punters’ worst memories just by feeling their heads. And Scaevity is a horror story about a woman who cuts off her left hand because she thinks it brings her bad luck. Well, that’s what I see anyway. Your take will be totally different. That’s the beauty of it.

Words work just as hard when you actually roll your sleeves up and start spitting out the prose. And I don’t mean just stringing them together to make sentences. What I’m talking about is making marks. Years ago I studied life drawing. It’s a tough discipline: there’s nothing harder to draw than the human body; and nothing more terrifying than the empty page you’ve got to put it on (empty pages are as daunting for artists as they are for writers).

The most useful thing I learned about life drawing was not to dither about. Just go ahead and start making marks on the page. Doesn’t matter if they’re wrong (actually, it’s impossible to make a wrong mark – each and every one informs the final piece). It’s all about exploration. Same with the words: it’s only by putting them on the page that you start to see the shapes they can make. The words themselves are the tools.

I kicked off by saying words were like flints. I’m going to finish by comparing writing to a stick of rock. And the words running all the way through the middle of the rock are, well, the words. Words can work just as hard as concept, tool and end result. What adaptable little fellows they are.

Comments

  1. Hi Graham, new here.

    I like your comparison of words being like flints, it’s so true. Stories lurk inside all words, but I do dictionary work and am fascinated by obscure words as well, aren’t they wonderful? Each a story, together—sparks!

    I find that writing something, anything, is a perfect start. Then you have something to delete, rewrite, delete, rewrite, and edit, edit, edit! (And then sometimes delete…)

    Take care, enjoyed this post.
    Debra

  2. Hi Debra. Thanks, and yes, I agree that writing is really rewriting, which means you’ve got to start somewhere. I just found and enjoyed this post of yours BTW: Some Unconventional Words

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