Robin Williams has a quote in “The Dead Poets Society” regarding the importance of being precise with your words. He says, “Avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys — to woo women — and in that endeavor, laziness will not do.”
I love this quote, because I believe as writers, like wizards and witches, we’re searching for the perfect words in the perfect combination, because it’s our real world equivalent to spells. Part of us speculates deep down that if we can achieve this, then the reader will be convinced, teleported, heartbroken, fulfilled, or entranced. We live in a time, where we’ve been told that words are just words, but the truth is, they matter. Words are magic. They transform into ideas, ideas evolve into action, action evolves into movements, and movements create change. Words are powerful enough to change the world for better or for worse; to start or end wars; to make people fall in and out of love; to unite or divide a nation.
Most readers value words, obviously. So I’ve been asked many times, where do my words come from? As much as I would enjoy saying that I plucked them from thin air or they are somehow in my blood, that’s not the case. Writing, to me at least, is not a talent, but rather, it is a skill that can be developed through studying. The creativity that fuels my writing is built from patterns, and these patterns can be enhanced and rewired through reading other authors’ works.
The first book I ever loved was “The Great Gatsby.” In those pages, I found a deep sense of longing on the verge of desperation. F. Scott Fitzgerald was, in a way, the first person who showed me what words could do; what images and feelings they could conjure up; and how the right ones brought characters to life.
Years later, I read “On The Road.” In fact, I sought it out for a highly specific reason. I’d been having an issue with fiction writing. I am ADD and have some obsessive tendencies, which means that I’m aiming for perfection each time, but I have to wrestle with my thoughts to keep them pinned down. I’d read about Kerouac’s use of stream of consciousness and knew that if I could learn how to employ the technique, I could channel my ADD and outpace the little critic in my head. The most obvious advantage of stream of consciousness is that you’re giving yourself permission and a built-in reason to just write without hesitation. I began practicing it with my poetry, which evolved into writing vignettes based on my time living in Los Angeles, which eventually became my source material for “Falling Up in The City of Angels,” my first completed novel.
During this same period, I became interested in songwriting. I devoured the lyrics of Tom Waits, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Lana Del Rey, and many others. I also stumbled upon surrealist poetry and specifically the surrealist poets Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and Federico Lorca. In the same way that stream of consciousness encouraged me to loosen up my sentence structure and to learn to really write my truth in its most raw and uninhibited form, the Spanish-language surrealist writers helped me refine my writing and use abstract thought and unusual word combinations to create something real, powerful, and often seemingly contradicting, which gives the sentences necessary tension in the right places.
Of course, in prose, the words are limited or enhanced by the plot and the narrative itself. Nowadays, some of the best writing is done on episodic series like “Breaking Bad,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Vikings,””Californication,” “Peaky Blinders,” “Penny Dreadful,” “Daredevil” (the show), and “The Walking Dead” (prior to Season Six). As a creator of any sort, when you see something truly excellent, it gives you a sense of artistic envy — not jealousy, no, but a sense that you want to create something of at least parallel excellence.
The most beautiful words in the world lose potency in the context of a story if the reader doesn’t care about the characters, loses interest in the plot, or finds the world you’ve created entirely unbelievable. So, I took that sense of artistic envy and let it guide me to slowly unraveling stories and being more empathetic towards the characters. Besides the twists and turns and intricacies of plot gained from these shows, the other thing I learned was how to use dialogue and humor — specifically from “Californication” — as a Trojan Horse to get across more serious points without draining or emotionally fatiguing the reader.
My dad and I were extremely deliberate as we wrote “Spellbound Under The Spanish Moss: A Southern Tale of Magic,” but after one month of outlining the book, we completed the first draft of the manuscript in three weeks in part because of the lessons learned from this hodge-podge of influences. One of the things we discussed frequently was avoiding editing while we were still in the writing stage. That, too, was intentional.
My advice as a recovering perfectionist is that as you choose your words, just know that the aim of writing isn’t to be good. The aim of writing is to be raw and honest and to simply make the reader care about the little universe in your head. So again, choose your words wisely, but know that the end goal is to become fluid enough that you can translate the yearnings of the heart.
What writers have inspired your artistic pursuits? Describe your process when you are in the initial stages of a project. Do you edit as you go, or do you find you are more productive when you let the words flow?