Nuts and Bolts: Word Play

Imagine a dump truck backs up to your driveway early one morning and disgorges a small mountain of bolts, screws, springs, hinges and assorted other metal thingies. You toddle outside in your jammies and slippers, peering through the steam from your coffee cup, and you ask the driver just what the heck he thinks he’s doing. As a stray hubcap goes clattering down the street, the driver hands you a receipt and says, “Congratulations. You’ve just won a Ferrari. Some assembly required.”

The beginning writer may feel some of the same anxiety and inadequacies as our Ferrari winner. The sheer number of nuts and bolts and word thingies is overwhelming. My American Heritage College Dictionary is well-used and slightly outdated. It has—oh, let’s just say about a bazillion words in it—they don’t tell me how many, and I have been remiss in counting them all myself. My Rodale’s Synonym Finder claims to have more than one million synonyms—so can I always find the one I really need? Of course not.

If you wandered down the aisles of your library, pulling books off the shelf at random, the profusion of word combinations would be staggering. The wry witticisms of Winston Churchill, the lean prose of Ernest Hemingway, the inventive monkey business of Dr. Seuss. The mind positively boggles. How can a beginning writer even begin to compete?

Here’s some great news—writing isn’t a competition. It is craft and art, creativity and expression, but it is not a contest where the winner goes home with a fat check and a guest spot on Leno, and the losers go home to ignominy and hoots of derision. If you’re writing, whether it’s journal entries, family history, limericks or novels, you have done something important. You wear the laurels—you are a writer.

Think of words and how you use them as you would think of a basketball. Sure, words can bounce and rebound and be fouled—but it’s more than that. In the hands of a master, the basketball—let’s call it a Spalding full-grain leather NBA ball—is a thing of grace and beauty. But what about the master who is using it, that tall, sweaty player pounding down the court? The pro has all those expectations riding on his or her shoulders. The coach is screaming because no amount of effort is good enough, the player’s agent has a scowl on his face, the media are waiting for a mistake to parlay into a juicy sports headline—and after winning this game, the player has to win the playoffs and then the championships and then try to do it all again next year.

Let’s give the same basketball to a little kid and see what happens. Whereas the master is constrained by the rules of the game and the high expectations of the crowd, the kid isn’t bound by any of that. He is free to make up his own rules. If the ball bounces off the trash can, rolls under Daddy’s pickup and bumps the flower pot, you get extra points. (Isn’t this more fun already?) You can balance the ball on your head, stick it under your T-shirt so you look like your grandpa, lay down with it under your belly and try to balance yourself with both arms and legs in the air. You can sit on it to watch ants, kick it against the fence until your mother complains or put it in the water fountain and watch it go around in circles.

Not being one of the pros means you have every freedom in the world. Words in the hands of the masters glow behind the covers of best-sellers, but beginning writers risk losing their own light if they hold it up to the glare of fame. Light is energy, and it is remarkable no matter what the size or what the source. Your writing is as individual as you are. No one—not J.K. Rowling or Cormac McCarthy—can breathe life into your story the same way you can. There are no constraints; there is nothing you can’t try.