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!

Writing to Become the Iron Horse: Writing as Streak

Disclaimer: This is meant to be an illumination of one way I have found to make writing work. For me. I do not recommend this as a fail-safe measure of writing.

On September 6, 1995, something happened that no one in the world of baseball ever thought possible. A player surpassed Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 baseball games consecutively spent on the starting lineup. The Iron Horse’s (Lou Gehrig’s) record had stood for 56 years. The night Cal Ripken Jr. broke the consecutive started games record, there came a new standard in the universe of baseball. Though it was one game difference, it still meant that a new requisite level of commitment and work was instilled that night. 2130 was no longer enough. After that day, Ripken played 502 more games in a row beyond that. Finally, at 2632 games played consecutively, Cal Ripken Jr. voluntarily ended his streak. This is sometimes referred to as the streak that saved baseball.  At the time of the record-breaking, there was a Sports Illustrated cover with Ripken on the front. The legend in big, block letters read: The New Iron Horse. Ripken had become the new symbol for hard work and determination in the collective baseball memory. This anecdote will serve as the central concept and in a way, metaphor of my essay.

The summer after eighth grade, I was wondering what sports or extracurricular activities I would be able to do well. At that time, I was 5’3 or 5’4 and about 115 pounds, if you can believe that, so football (American) was pretty much out and since I was from a town in Washington state that was a dead ringer for a 50 years advanced Yoknapatawpha setting, soccer was out as well. So one morning before it got really hot, my dad suggested we go out for a run together. I said okay. Though I had never run before except in quick bursts, I realized that I liked it–it was something I could do and it felt like a kind of perverse pleasure to put yourself through that when the only prize you might get was a blister or beating someone in a race who you had lost to in the previous one. In a best-case scenario, you simply found out how much pain you could take before you cracked. So I started running. I took weekends off and during the summer I slept in. Running was painful, almost a punishment, but I kept doing it. Dragging myself out of bed or off the couch to go run seemed like a chore. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew I should.  But then Cross-Country season came. At that point, I became sucked into the culture–suddenly you were talking about people like Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter and Billy Mills as if they were Jesus or the Dali Lama or (as crazy as we seemed) maybe even Jeremiah Smith or L. Ron Hubbard. And eventually, I stopped taking days off. It got to the point where I was proud of my streak and hated the thought of giving it up and every day I almost didn’t run and the sun had gone down and it was a couple hours away from bed-time, I’d get an itch I couldn’t scratch. I kept thinking about how I hadn’t run that day. How I would lose something, even if just a little, if I didn’t run. So I’d get up and run, both because I wanted to and because I needed to. Though I’m not saying that my streak was anywhere comparable to Cal Ripken Jr.’s. But I am saying that there seems to be a link between the length of time doing something and pride and thus a renewed urge and drive to keep that streak going. I’m sure you’ve heard of insufferable people celebrating their year’s worth of relationship or marriage. The same basic principle applies, only to run or write every day is even more easy to accomplish, as the only person you have to contend with is yourself and the only needs and wants you have to accommodate are your own. Do you want to write? Do you need to write? Then write.

I seem to have been obsessed with the idea of work as of late. I think it’s because after fighting for so long with the notion of work and writing every day, I’ve had a minor breakthrough with finishing my novel. In the last two weeks or so, I made a promise to myself that I would not go to bed every day until I wrote at least 2,000 words. I kept that promise. Then I did the math. My book is 105,000 words long. If I had wrote 2,000 words a day for the entirety of the time I was writing my book, it would have taken me less than two months to write the entirety of that book instead of the eight months it ended up taking me. Though that’s the straight math, there is no way I would have been able to write 2,000 words every day at the beginning of the book, simply because I was still figuring the characters out as I wrote the first part of the story. As I learned about the characters and realized what they would do in a certain situation and began thinking ahead of the story itself, I was able to write more words in less time. Though I was able to figure out my characters by taking my time, I still believe I would have been able to do it sooner if I had at least committed to writing something every day at the beginning of my book. The simple act of sitting down and writing put me in a place where I could think about what I was to do with the book even after I had stopped writing. I wrote in short bursts, inspiration-driven hazes most of the time. Which is okay, but it’s not a substitute for work, sitting down each day to do it. One of my friends, who is a poet, responded when I said these things with this quote. “Yeah, but you finished it. Everyone starts a book. Writers finish books.”

This quote both made me feel good and made me commit myself once again to my streak. Now that I have a novel to edit, I put it in the drawer for a while—I’m not sure yet about how long it will sit there. Until I no longer feel tied to it, I suppose, so that I can objectively gauge the work of it. While the book sits there I have devoted myself to continuing the streak, so while my book sits, I have decided to work on story after story until I start editing my book. And even while I edit, I’ll still be working on more stories. Because I’ve come to realize that with every single day of work I put in, my gauge of talent goes up just a little bit and I’m able to sustain a higher level of good writing the more I do it. I am more conscious of what I’m doing with every word I write. It’s a little like juggling. First, as a beginning writer, I could only juggle with one ball and sometimes I’d drop that. Then I’d be able to work sometimes with two juggling sacks—now I feel like I’ve progressed to sometimes being able to be conscious of doing three things at once with my writing. I feel like my writing is branching out and reaching in directions I didn’t know it could. Only one word can really describe it: exhilaration.

So, as a final word, I guess I’ll say that I know how hard it is to work on your writing day in and day out. And I know how easy it sounds coming from someone who has finally seemingly broken through that barrier of needing to remind myself to write everything and becoming the person who has made writing every day a habit. I hope there were some posts made on here previously that showed my difficulty in writing every day. I’m not sure if there are, but I know I had those difficulties. Everyone does when they begin to write. And some people may never get over those difficulties and must find different methods of writing in order to get over this. But for the most part, if you can, I encourage you to start trying to write every day. Even if at the beginning it becomes a sentence or two. If you can’t get farther than that, don’t force it. But the longer you do it, the more accustomed you should become to having to be prepared to write that day. And hopefully after long enough your streak will then evolve from something you have to remind yourself to do, like an errand or chore and into something like a habit, something that if you haven’t done it, actually gnaws at you and you are coerced to write in order to soothe your conscience. You actually feel better about writing because it alleviates a strange sort of guilt. This probably sounds a bit fucked up, and right you are. But ask yourself if you’d rather feel worse about writing or worse about not writing. This is the method I’ve found that helps me most with my writing. Hopefully it made sense and will help you out with your writing.

Dictionary Daily: Ken

This should have never been called “dictionary daily”–since my initial post about a word, I’m pretty sure I never did another. Anyway, I watched an episode of The Big Bang Theory and Sheldon tells Penny that she is “meddling with forces beyond her ken.” This line triggered something in my mind and brought to mind Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In that poem, the word “ken” is used here: “And through the drifts the snowy clifts/Did send a dismal sheen:/Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken -/ The ice was all between.” I love that section of the poem because Coleridge uses words that then might have been in use, but now are almost completely archaic. I see that a pattern having to do with my fascination involving archaic words. For those of you who do not know, the word “ken” is an archaic form of the word “knowledge” or “to know.” The use of this word is pretty versatile, as it functions as both a verb and noun.

Though I’ve already done one of these on another archaic word, I still find myself inspired to do another one, so it seems as if I’m drawn to this idea of the archaic word for more reasons than I can fathom. I can’t really hardly dredge up even one reason, so I put it to the analytical side of my brain. The idea that there are words that have now become archaic indicates that there were words more preferable to the ones that became outmoded and in this way we learned to picked and choose which words suited our ears best. Unless I’m missing some historical/anthropological link between this word and its origins that might explain its archaic nature, I’m just going to have to go with that. And since there seem to be words that were discarded by English-speaking peoples, I am forced to wonder if there are words we can bring back (cue the racism scene from Clerks 2)–could we somehow finds ways to resurrect words that have been trashed, is there a necessity to this, an inherent logic in making sure that no piece of our language get left behind? Maybe the idea that even a single piece of our language can become dead (or an entire language for that matter) is what really scares me the most and brings me to seek out these lonely words and reintroduce them to our lexicon. Cormac McCarthy does just that in Blood Meridian, using tons of archaic words and does amazing work with them, showing that even though words have been discarded, they will never lack their use if we have the desire to put them to it.