by Virginia Parker Staat
“What crazies we writers are, our heads full of language like buckets of minnows standing in the moonlight on a dock.”
~ Flannery O’Connor
Last week, while rummaging for adjectives in my word box, I came across a list that I had written when we lived in Mexico. The list was titled, Words Like Candy on My Tongue. It contained words like palomino, chrysanthemum, and soliloquy.
Finding this list of sweet words reminded me how delicious words can taste. I well remember the day that I wrote that list. We were on a three-year assignment in Tampico, completely immersed in the Spanish language. I spent most days struggling to communicate and comprehend. The bombardment was relentless. Even our car spoke Spanish.
With so many foreign words swirling around me, I longed to say familiar, beautiful words that rolled like candy on my tongue. Some days, David and I would draw all the curtains in the house, shutting out our noisy, dusty street to watch old movies off a satellite dish as big as an Apollo space capsule. Those old movies had the language that we longed for… rich words, vibrant words, passionate words.
As writers, we have the opportunity to serve sweet and beautiful words to our readers… not flowery or fancy words but words that when whisked together create a tantalizing treat that transports our readers into seeing something old as new again.
At the risk of mixing metaphors, beautiful words blended together explode on the tongue like a lyrical symphony of flavors. The words melt into each other, mesmerizing with a rhythmic cadence. They captivate with tone. They enchant with a lyrical flow. This is not about overwriting. See how outdoor writer Peter Matthiessen evokes emotion and imagery with these few, beautiful words, “Figures dark beneath their loads pass down the far bank of the river, rendered immortal by the streak of sunset upon their shoulders” (from The Snow Leopard).
We accomplish this kind of writing with painstaking detail. We begin by eliminating unnecessary words. We add rhythm by varying sentence lengths and structures, building a conscious ebb and flow and intensity throughout our work. Tone comes with words that evoke emotion consistent with our subject matter. Flow comes with smooth transitions, using a variety of alliteration and staccato words, building sentences that roll off the tongue and enable our readers to visualize our subject. In the end, we arrive at something transcendent, turning even something ugly into raw beauty.
A simple test to check our success is to read our work aloud, as if it were a performance, listening to cadence, rhythm, and breath. We massage our words until they come alive with personality, like connoisseurs describing wine or chocolates.
Taste the sweetness of your favorite words on your tongue, then swirl them together into a luscious confectionary of rich sentences. Done well, our word candy can tempt even the most reluctant of readers into wanting to savor more.