Dictionary Daily: Zephyr

Okay, so lately while reading Infinite Jest for the second time, I suddenly happened upon a word that I haven’t thought of for a long time: zephyr. And seeing as how I haven’t done one of these dictionary daily things in forever and I love me some archaic words, as we probably all know after reading my other D.D. posts, I decided I’d do a little riff on the word zephyr.

I think I first encountered this word in college when reading the poetry of the Romantics. I was confused as to what the hell a Zephyr was–sounded liked some fake mythical animal or something that had the head of a zebra and the body of a fir tree or some crazy shit. I wasn’t too far wrong. The word’s origin is mythological in nature. In Greek Mythology, Zephyrus was the name given to the personification of the West Wind, so said to be the most favorable of all the directional winds, in addition to being the bringer of light spring and early summer breezes. If this wasn’t cool enough, authors as distinguished as Chaucer and Shakespeare have used Zephyrus or just plain “zephyrs” to refer to wind. In fact, it may even be Shakespeare himself in Cymbeline who is the first author to refer to a light, pleasant wind as a “zephyr”– “They are as gentle as zephyrs blowing the violet, not wagging his sweet head.” Yes, I got lots of this from wikipedia, but now it’s in my head and will likely never leave. I just liked the idea that these two giants of the early canon both had a hand in Zephyrus becoming zephyr.

Though zephyr is a word still used today, it is semi-archaic, now being surpassed in favorability by words like breeze and the like.  I think the reason that this word still has some sort of effect on me is that I love how the word is not only a descriptor, but it goes beyond description and becomes representative of  wind. In essence, the word zephyr is also an onomatopoeia.  The word zephyr itself sounds like a whishing wind (whishing also being an onomatopoeia–love that word as well, better make a note). Zephyr can also be used in the adjectival sense and even awkwardly in verb-form if the writer is so inclined, but the true beauty of the word lies in the combination of the relationship between sound and meaning, the capturing almost completely the thing that is supposed to be meant by the word itself. The best comparison I can make when making this point is by saying that Shakespeare might have been correct when he said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I think he would have been wrong if he had used the word zephyr in his quote. No other word for a light wind would be as perfect as zephyr–though breeze is a convenient and newly developed synonym for wind, the handful of breaths and wind-like sounds in zephyr make breeze no match for zephyr in the battle for being le mot juste–just the right word. So after my pretentious post, I will remove my head from my ass and exclaim to the poets, “BRING BACK THE ZEPHYR!” Thank you to all those who listen!

Grasping the Wind: Describing the Nature and Features of Voice

We all know the feeling. We sit on our couches and our eyes move left to right and down the page, following the words this master has created. How do we know he’s a master? Well, just look! The way the writer uses the words, runs them together in strings of perfection that create the uninterrupted fictive dream. The writer uses his knowledge of his craft to a T. And what’s more? He sounds like no other writer. He sounds, in a word, like himself. It’s just impossible to think that he sounds like anyone else out there writing or having written. This magic, this seeming like one’s self is in my opinion the pinnacle of what a writer should aspire to. This pinnacle has a name and it’s bandied about in all circles of publishing, writing, and critiquing. It’s referred to as voice.

Okay, so we know what voice looks like when we see it. We know all the agents and editors and publishers and even our selves are looking for it. So why the hell can’t we find it? Why is it so damn unattainable? And worse, why is it we can’t see it in ourselves? When I was younger I spent way more time than was necessary or even helpful in trying to decide if I had found my voice yet. The answer, as you might have guessed, was no–I hadn’t found my voice yet. Like most, I didn’t even know what it would look like when I did it because it was my work I was trying to assess as having voice or not. What few people will tell you is the necessary tenets or qualities of voice and how it is attained. Now, this won’t be an end-all be all treatise on “5 FAIL-SAFE WAYS TO MAKE SURE YOU FIND YOUR VOICE!” Hardly. Though it would be wonderful to have something like that laid out in front of us so that all we would have to do would be to follow the recipe. Or would we? The point is that writing is far too mystical, alchemical, and artful for it to be as simple as all that. However, I will try to give some sort of bearing on how to go about finding your voice.

First, the definition. Last year, I attended the Tin House Writers Workshop and one of the first talks given was given by the Tin House editors. It was called the “Tin House View” and had to do with voice and why it was so important and, more importantly, just what the fuck it was. During the conversation, it was the Editor in Chief of Tin House Magazine, Rob Spillman who said, when asked to elaborate on the concept of voice, that voice was “having a sense of authority that tells the reader that the writer who wrote this knows what he is doing and is telling this story for a reason.” Definition one, right there. I hope a lightbulb is going off in your head as you read this, because it did to me when I sat and listened to this talk. Rob’s words pulled some sort of veil from my eyes and there it was: an actual almost touchable definition of voice.

The second definition of voice comes from a completely difference source. This summer I spent lots of time smoking various substances and lounging around the backyard with my favorite fellow writers. One day we got into a discussion about Quentin Tarantino (who I hate and who my friends seem to have some sort of affection for). I contended that it seemed like he was a one-trick pony who used violence as both a means and an ends and pretty much nothing else. My friends argued and I was finally persuaded to try and watch Kill Bill. The dialogue ended there, but then my friend Aaron said something that caught my attention.  He said, essentially, that the thing that made him admire Tarantino so much was that everything he did in his films seemed to have been on purpose, for a specific reason. Nothing was random or an accident. It just fit. Now, that didn’t necessarily convince me that Tarantino was great–but it did spark an idea in me that that was exactly what voice was. Filmmakers–Kubrick, Cohens, Fincher, Bergman–just like writers, end up developing a style (see: voice) that is recognizable almost at all times. Though this definition is very much like the previous one, I’d like to point out how it is not. The first definition concerned itself with authority, meaning staking a claim for respect and attention. Declaring oneself to be serious and worthy of consideration. This second definition focuses much more on intent of the artist and the perception of his work. In a word, this definition is concerned with control. The ability to control one’s work to the point that everything he does seems on purpose. This is the definition I will mostly be focusing on, though as I focus on the second definition, glimpses of the former one will continually rear up. Because the first definition is the one we have the least control over, seeing as how it relies on the perception of the reader to recognize the writer’s authority. But on the other hand, the second definition contains something in it that we can do something about, because it refers to action, to control, to agency. The first definition is the final product that should be arrived at after mastering the second one.

Okay, so now I’m going to ask you to forget about voice. Why? Because it’s for all intents and purposes, useless. Then what the fuck was all that going on about for (checks the word counter at the bottom left here…)950 words (that’s before the parenthetical)? I’ll tell you. If you want, go open a document right now and start writing like yourself. Write a story sounding like yourself. How far did you get? I know how it went, at least I know how it went for me when I used to try that: nowhere. The reason for that is because I was basically trying to reach the thing in an equation that lies on the other side of the equal sign separate from everything else. I was trying to reach the sum without investigating and mastering each of the parts. That’s called cheating (or so my high school Algebra teacher not so kindly informed me years ago).  Voice in fiction is what happens when all of the other parts of the alchemical process that is writing has been mastered (which are never really mastered, by the way). If you really want to reach your voice, look at your own writing that’s already there. It’s there. Just like the David was already there in the marble–all Michelangelo had to do was trim the excess. That’s your job as well.

Your writing is you. Your voice is you translated into your writing. Now all that’s left is to decide what reflects you. What do you concern yourself with when you write? These are the basis of everything in your writing. Character, point of view, setting, dialogue, description, and style (word usage, sentence length, cadence, etc.): these are the ingredients to your writing and to your voice. They are also the ingredients to the craft, the art that we dedicate ourselves to for some reason. The characters you write about, the places that shape your characters and say something about your stories, the ways in which people speak or don’t speak, the details you decide to turn your spotlight on, the images that strike you and seem to be yours you understanding them so well, the way in which you decide to construct your sentences and the words you choose to use–these are all the things that go into creating the marble block. Every piece has a meaning. It’s for you to decide what the meaning is. And here is where I leave you. From here on out, my advice, in fact, anyone else’s advice as you write that first draft and build up your marble block will cease to help. This is where writing is undeniably an art. No one can do it for you and you will never be able to do it unless you put yourself and only yourself into it. This is where all the agency in the world is in your hands. Nowhere else will you have as much control and responsibility as you do right here. I hope this inspires you, because god damn it, it inspires me. The idea that I’m the only one responsible for what becomes of this block of marble in front of me? People would most definitely kill to feel like they have this much control over something in their lives. We are the gifted ones who choose to do this as a profession, maybe if we can’t do it full time, even as a hobby. Some days it may feel like a curse, some days we have to open a vein and bleed to write. Some days it comes so easily we look back and think: who the hell wrote that? It’s a mysterious process we’re involved in and all the while we’re building up to the point where we have to trim the excess of the draft, the marble block we’ve created. This last part is where we surely shape the block into the David, into our voice. This part is called revision. And it’s all about coolness under pressure, of level-headedness–not the white-hot burn of inspiration.

So here we are. The last step of the process, which is kind of a never-ending one if you think about it. Whereas the writer in the heat of writing the first draft simply stops when he reaches the end, the process of revising is the last painful part for most writers. Having to go back and point out all the pockmarks and acne scars in this one, big enormous darling of his, the writer most likely (as I do) balks at the task, naively hoping that maybe there won’t be anything wrong with the work, that it will be an unstoppable Kerouac-ian bull of a book. You will be wrong. And I’m not so sure that Kerouac wasn’t just a bit of a liar, claiming that he didn’t edit anything of On the Road–it’s a nice thought, but probably a lie. And so the writer goes back and highlights, underlines, draws arrows, puts question marks on his beautiful darling. Then, as if this wasn’t enough, after applying the requisite flourishes and corrections, he then asks his friends, his most trusted advisors and respected colleagues to get in on the action, marking their own doubts in the form of question marks and underlines and what not. Though this seems indecent, this will actually be the most helpful part of the entire process, so pay attention. The time will soon come when your writer buddies will gather together and talk about your work. Take notes. They say what was good, what they thought was working, what  connections they saw between character, setting, description, dialogue, theme, etc. Then they will say what problems they had with it. Take notes. They will ask if you intended certain things, they will suggest improvements to draw the theme tighter or to flesh out characters, or any other number of things. Takes notes. Get a damn tape recorder. Anything to remember all these things flying around the air that could be useful. Just remember this: no matter who these people are–friends, colleagues, lovers, brothers or sisters, brothers or sisters in law, your word is law when it comes to your own work. You can take all their advice or none. The most important thing is that you learn what problems readers other than yourself are finding and that you find ways to fix those problems. Simple. I hope.

So there you are. After you have written something and edited it, revised it within an inch of its life, hopefully you will have something that reflects your voice. After the product is finished, maybe give it to the same people who revised it and maybe even give it to someone who hasn’t, someone who doesn’t read much or hasn’t read your stuff. My brother hardly reads at all, but he’s one of my best friends. We have late-night conversations that run until the sun rises. He gives great advise and he’s incredibly smart. So I give him a story of mine when I think it’s ready to go out. His word normally tells me when something is ready to go out. I ask him to let me know if it seems like whoever wrote this knows what he’s doing, like everything is doing what it’s doing because it’s supposed to be that way. This is where the first criterion of voice comes into play. By the end of your revision process, your story should claim an authority, claim that it deserves to be listened to and that you know what you’re doing. And maybe even more importantly, it should seem by the end of your story that it is being told for a reason. If your reader finishes with your story and says to himself, “Why the hell did I read this?” Or “What’s the point?” somewhere along the way the story lost the reader. This is not to say that every reader will respond the same way to your story. But if your most trusted readers are still missing the point, it’s back to the drawing board.

At this point I feel like I should say something really inspirational about voice and all writing in general. I guess all I have to say is that I hope that every day at some point while you’re writing your story, poem, or essay that you look up and stop and think how lucky you are to be doing this–to be crafting something that is drudged up from within and shines as an example of who you are, of what and how and when and where and, maybe most importantly, why you are. If, in the end of your story, after all that work, you feel like you have achieved this, then you will be luckier than most who attempt it–and, most likely, you will have found your voice.

A Rumination on the Longevity of Story vs. The Life of the Ego

All right, so instead of finishing writing the story I need to write this month, I’m thinking and spending way too much fucking time inside my head. Solipsism and lack of contact/interaction with my favorite people in the world (aside from my better half) has been the cause, I’m quite certain. So now I’m going to write a blog-post about something that has been whizzing all around the chambers of my head since I sat down on the toilet at work earlier tonight (I know, a little less glamorous place than a bathtub for a “eureka” moment, but it’ll do).

Earlier tonight, I felt the old call of nature and had to take a bathroom break. I elected to take the stall, as it was a way to cheat the clock and spend a few minutes off my feet. Once on the throne, I looked to my right and saw a graffitied conversation/message board commensurate with the sophistication of an elementary philosophy class. The first message that started it off was something like this: “This message is here to say something. But it will be erased and will vanish forever. Nothing is permanent. Remember that.” Sensible enough, if not an obvious statement to make. It’s nice to be reminded of these things every now and then. However, the next message went something like, “Yeah, but now even if it gets erased, it has entered our minds and lives on forever.” Insert snide comment here. The next comment was the one that got me thinking: “No, it doesn’t. You die, idiot.”

That was the end of the conversation as I found it. And how interesting that the first thought that rose to my head happened to be, “That’s why storytelling is so important!” I sat there for a while, wondering if I should pull the pen out of my pocket (not a euphemism) and write my retort right there under the “my dad is bigger than your dad” comment.I will save face by not answering the obvious implied question and instead forge on to elaborate on my first knee jerk thought.

What the last poster said was true. We die. Things break down. The center cannot hold. Turning and turning in the widening gyre and all that noise. So how do we ensure that something lasts forever? How do we extend the longevity of us? The answer to the question may seem obvious, given what has been said before. And it is. But that’s not the important part. Lots of people, when asked why they write, say “Because this way I can live forever.” The folly in this statement is the main importance, the integral piece to this post.

In the interest of full disclosure, when I first started out writing, this was my reason for writing. I knew that books were published and many of those people who wrote those books have been talked about year after year and were never forgotten. I admired and worshiped (and still do) those writers. In our culture and in our profession of writing, the writer has become elevated to a level above what is most important. The thing that is most important is the story and the craft. And it is in this answer to the question of why we write that we see the vanity of the writer being repeated constantly. Which is not to say that the writer is the only one who has these moments. Lots of parents have this same answer (whether they admit it or not) to the question of why they became parents. The problem is when we dedicate ourselves to this craft, this noble pursuit in the attempt to live forever, essentially admitting to our using this great gift of storytelling as a means to an end. Telling the story should be the end, not its means. Why is this? Because we don’t live forever. No one lives forever. But the story does.

Let’s face it. We don’t tell stories to make ourselves live forever. C.S. Lewis said that we write not to be understood, but to understand. This is a good place to start. We wish to generate compassion in ourselves through the means of creating, exploring, inquiring, and finally creating. However, at the same time, F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Writers don’t write because they want to say something. They write because they have something to say.” Here Fitzgerald is alluding to the idea that instead of trying to generate compassion in ourselves, we are trying to generate compassion in others. Projecting rather than internalizing.  I think right here is the crux, the dichotomy in the view of craft. These aren’t quite two different sides to the same coin, but they do somewhat create the yin-yang of the storytelling world. We write to create and to communicate. We tell stories for this same reason. The oral tradition and the written tradition were both used to communicate and and entertain. And to this end, our stories convey the values that are held by us and that we hope to pass down. These themes and ideas are all intertwined in the process of storytelling. And finally, I’ll get to my point.

I think an important thing to strive for in your own writing is the ego-death of the author. You may have heard this term before and you may not have. Normally, it’s used to describe the feeling that comes over you during an LSD experience where you achieve objectivity. You cease to be yourself. You see yourself from a god’s eye view and selfishness becomes a foreign term. I’m candy-coating it slightly. According to those people I know who have experienced it, it’s actually quite fucking terrifying. It was fucking terrifying to me when I heard about it. But the point still stands that we as authors (and the best ones have) need to take ourselves out of the equation when creating our characters, settings, et cetera. Or at least the part of ourselves where the ego resides; where I wonder, agonize, and fret over just how I’m going to come off to those who will read this piece of my soul I’m putting down right now. And I know this sounds high and mighty, and holier than thou and all that shit. Because believe me, it sounds like that to me, too. And some who read this won’t like the suggestion that I’ve put forth. I know I’ve heard this suggestion in quite a different places lately, and I didn’t like it any of the times I heard it. In fact, it scared me quite a bit. And why wouldn’t it? The ego doesn’t like to hear that it should be put to sleep every once in a while, especially when the piece of my soul is being put down in a format where other egos will superimpose themselves in judgment over this piece of my heart. As Faulkner once said, “What matters is not the writer. What matters is the story. If I hadn’t been born, I would have been written anyway.” Though I’m not sure I agree with this assessment, it’s true that we don’t know who wrote Beowfulf or The Epic of Gilgamesh or who exactly wrote those amazing pieces of The Bible and maybe that’s what we need. These scribes didn’t think it necessary to add their own stamps to these pieces of art. The story was enough and would live on far longer than they themselves. Now, I’m not suggesting we go so far as to take our names off our own works. But I am suggesting that we remember that we serve our characters and we serve our stories. Not the other way around.