I was at a wake this past Wednesday when my buddy’s sister’s fiancé – nicest guy – struck up a conversation with me about writing. Specifically, we discussed generating original ideas and weaving them into a narrative.
Then, he told me he writes on his free-time, which I love hearing because you can’t be a writer unless you actually write – a great lesson I learned about seven years ago. He was messing around with a screenplay at first and now has arrived at a Go Ask Alice–like journal.
But he had reservations: his vocabulary was too limited, in his opinion, nothing like mine, he said. That comment, besides flattering me, led us to discussing narrative voice and how an extensive diction can actually hamper a writer sometimes. It certainly did when I initially wrote Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up. Teenage narrators only know so many words. Humans, in general, only use so many words.
Depending on the speaker, I constantly have to remind myself of the limits of working vocabularies. Very few use heightened diction for a myriad of reasons – namely, lack of knowledge or care and fear of the stigma of arrogance.
It got me thinking. How did I come upon my expansive vocabulary that drives my wife nuts when I use a word like lugubrious instead of sad?
Well, I read.
It’s not like I had much choice. My father did not believe in cable when I was growing up. Yes, I was SO deprived. I didn’t grow up watching Nickelodeon shows or sneaking around to watch HBO late at night. I only knew the results of the pro-wrestling pay-per-views because the New York Post did a Monday recap or I went over to my elderly neighbor Ralph’s house and watched them with him. So, besides eat, which I did plenty of, and throw the baseball around, what else was there to do?
Well, there was PBS.
And then there were books.
I remember lying on the living room floor reading one book after another. Before that, though, I read very little on account of a reading comprehension issue first identified in second grade. I could read, but I did not understand what any of it meant.
The irony in becoming an English teacher is not lost on me in this moment. However, my reading difficulties early on did not provide the impetus for my future career. I became an English teacher when the print journalism industry crumbled, but more so because I wanted to teach kids how to write.
So, what did I do between then and eight years ago when I got my B.A. in English?
Well, naturally I stopped reading because reading wasn’t cool when you got to middle school. Neither was being intelligent, which I never quite understood. The exception, though, was that I religiously read my neighbor’s newspapers. For years and years I did this. Even though I was only reading the assigned texts for school, at least I was reading them.
And that’s really the point: you have to read something, anything. There’s a bit more to it than that, though. Two repeated actions, in particular, helped me develop my vocabulary: decoding words in context and having someone to model it properly. As a child, I challenged myself regularly to try to extract the meaning of a word before looking it up in the physical dictionary (an activity I actually enjoyed, which further cements my nerd status).
In addition, my father and even my mother have very high working vocabularies. I remember their using words like “conscientious” and “ubiquitous” throughout my youth. And they always took the time to explain what the words meant whenever I asked.
Now, in the classroom, I use heightened vocabulary to challenge my students to extract meaning. If they ask what a word means, I’ll give them a sentence instead. If they still can’t get it, I’ll give them a synonym. At the expense of fluff quiz grades, I’ve even done away with the standalone vocabulary book, which serves as an exercise in copying more than learning new words anyway.
Above all, though, we read, we discuss, we analyze, and we write about it. My students never long for opportunities to articulate their thoughts; if anything, they probably hope to avoid another paragraph response, higher-level thinking reading questions, a presentation, or even a critical essay.
So, to return to my buddy’s sister’s fiancé, I did not give him over 800 words of unnecessary advice; instead, I told him to keep writing and reading because that’s the easiest, most efficient, and really most productive way to improve your vocabulary and syntax.
As long as you have the idea (and the mettle to edit and cut away parts of yourself).
Full disclosure: In adulthood, I have once again become an avid reader, for the real world has no time for the village idiot. See What’s Andrew Reading for regular updates.