erik lundegaard

The Joy of Mere Words

I often re-read George Orwell's essay, “Why I Write,” because it's short, and good, and when I need a reminder now and again. When I need bucking up.

I've always liked this bit in particular:

When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e., the sounds and associations of words. The lines from Paradise Lost—

So hee with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee,

which do not now seem to me so very wonderful, sent shivers down my backbone; and the spelling “hee” for “he” was an added pleasure.

Ernest HemingwayFor me it was later, when I was about 19, and taking a freshman literature course at the University of Minnesota. One of the books on the syllabus was Ernest Hemingway's “In Our Time,” and one of the stories in that collection was “Soldier's Home,” about a young man, Krebs, coming back from the Great War. This is the second paragraph:

There is a picture which shows him on the Rhine with two German girls and another corporal. Krebs and the corporal look too big for their uniforms. The German girls are not beautiful. The Rhine does not show in the picture.

That seemed wholly perfect to me in a way that no paragraph ever had. Hemingway gives us an image, which, because we're romantic fools, can be romanticized; then, with the next three sentences, he takes away all romantic notions. Some part of me still thinks “The Rhine does not show in the picture” is the greatest sentence ever written in the English language.

I stared at the paragraph after I'd read it until tears came to my eyes; then I took it downstairs to share with my father. Because the joy of mere words needs to be shared. 

What about you? When did you first discover the joy of mere words?

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Posted at 06:35 AM on Thu. Nov 18, 2010 in category Books  


Jerry Grillo wrote:

For me it was never one 'a-ha' moment. It's been more a matter of intermittent rediscovery, a love affair that probably began with Dr. Seuss, and really heated up as I discovered, of all things, the work of some old sports writers, especially Red Smith (“The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”. Hyperbole? Probably. (Explains a lot, no?). But such colorful words. I got caught up in the possibilities of journalism.

So much of the joy of words for me has come from reading what I consider great journalism. Maybe it's a validation thing. Maybe it seems like something realistic to reach for.

Then it was Updike's famous 'Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,' and this famous paragraph:

“Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.”

That made me want to be a sports writer.

Then it was a teacher in college, John Bowers, who introduced me to 'Homage to Catalonia,' and it's been writers like the late, great Paul Hemphill since then.

All have inspired, kept the word-spark glowing for me.

Comment posted on Thu. Nov 18, 2010 at 07:30 AM

Uncle Vinny wrote:

I fixated on words very early, but mostly in a vocabulary and etymology sense until I hit a literature class in high school where I read James Joyce. In particular, I remember being thrilled by the first chapter of Portrait of an Artist...

“He was caught in the whirl of a scrimmage and, fearful of the flashing eyes and muddy boots, bent down to look through the legs. The fellows were struggling and groaning and their legs were rubbing and kicking and stamping. Then Jack Lawton's yellow boots dodged out the ball and all the other boots and legs ran after. He ran after them a little way and then stopped. It was useless to run on. Soon they would be going home for the holidays. After supper in the study hall he would change the number pasted up inside his desk from seventy-seven to seventy-six. ”

Comment posted on Thu. Nov 18, 2010 at 04:15 PM

Reed wrote:

Great posting, and excellent comments Vinny and Jerry.

I never read much. I still don't read nearly enough, and as an aspiring writer I am ashamed to say I don't have any favorite quotes at the ready. I really should. I know there have been those moments of shock and awe at what the of English language has to offer when someone really digs their paws into it. I'm going to bring a highlighter with me from now on.

As I said, I never read much, and surely never wrote. It wasn't until my sophomore year at Michigan when I took a creative writing class on a whim, and a young prof named Todd McKinney inspired the hell out of me. He explained that good writing is often like the difference between Eddie Van Halen finger-tapping his way to a hot-licked solo and the passion that Miles Davis can convey in just one note on his horn. And it wasn't just the comment, but the way he said it. He was 100% certain of this. In that moment, I got it - or at least realized that even though I'll probably never have a natural gift for prose, I can still write.

I began and finished my first one-act play over the next three days. I've had the bug ever since, even though there's never enough time to fully indulge it. Some day...

Comment posted on Fri. Nov 19, 2010 at 02:25 PM

Erik wrote:

Vinny: Joyce and Nabakov (and sometimes Updike, Jerry) are the only writers I read who make me want to give up the game. They're obviously at a different level.

Near the end of my college days, I was reading “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' and came across a sentence that made me unaccountably hungry. I stopped, thought, ”How did Joyce do that?“ and re-read. The words seemed simple. About 10 years later I came across the same sentence, and, expecting simplicity, I found complexity. I now find it to be both. Here it is:

”He hoped there would be stew for dinner, turnips and carrots and bruised potatoes and fat mutton pieces to be ladled out in thick peppered flourfattened sauce."

Other writers try to duplicate this and come off as precious.

Comment posted on Sat. Nov 27, 2010 at 01:11 PM
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