Keep It Plane and Symbol
By Steve Carr
About this time of year my fascination with the abundance of Idaho snow wanes and I find myself with a book by the fireplace. We are book people in our house. The teetering stacks beside my bed bear proof. The fact that many of the tomes hold a page marker, some barely twenty pages past the author’s dedication, tells a nuanced story. Yes, I have an affinity for books. But more often than I care to admit, the stories within fail to sustain me. I mark my place and, despite the passage of weeks or months, I do often return. Just as often, I don’t.
Last night I picked up one of my favorite authors and found my place marked with someone’s business card. His business closed ten years ago. I began reading where I had left off long ago, and I savored the words even while tasting a dash of envy. I enjoy Wallace Stegner for the way he writes, his imagery, his turn of a phrase fascinates even when the tale behind the sentences begins to slide into something less compelling. Hence, I undertake Stegner (and other canonical writers) in fits and starts. To finish is optional.
A second stack on the nightstand is replete with engaging stories, written less artfully. (I won’t share names here.) Partway in, I peter out, mark the page, and toss it on the dresser. I’ve been known to set a bestseller aside just pages from the surprise ending, never remembering to return. Surely this says something about me. I’d rather not know.
In the end, the words, their form and syntax, win out over story. Unfortunately for me and a legion of dreamers, the ability to write like Stegner or Steinbeck is a gift unattainable. Like middle age, such awareness is something with which one must come to terms, in part, by finding a happy place. Seeing my column in print, sharing space with other writers, has nudged me toward that place.
Last week I heard a word on the radio I hadn’t remembered hearing before: perspicacity. I certainly haven’t used it. I popped it into my computer thesaurus. It gave me these synonyms: discernment, sharpness, perceptiveness, acuity, insightfulness. Now that is a cool word, I thought, excited for my future readers. Then I fiddled with “perspicuous.” The dictionary defines it as: plainness, intelligibility and also transparent. I want to write perspicuously. I forged on. “Transparency,” I realized, is a buzzword of our time. But is it the best word? I wondered. When we use it, don’t we really mean that we should be perspicuous? Working farther down the rabbit hole, I soon discovered “perspicacious” and was delighted to learn it meant: “Insightful, wise, astute and sagacious.” I want to be all those things. Who doesn’t?
I reveled in my new words for a couple of days. Then this morning, as I sat in search of inspiration for this column, I picked up a literary classic from the corner of my desk and fondled the leather binding. As cool as my new words were, I knew, neither Stegner nor Steinbeck would have ever used them. I was downtrodden. I wanted to own my new vocabulary. A single word may say it all, but it simply won’t fly to write, “The deliberations of the city elders should be perspicuous.” Readers are persnickety about such things. So, although I may desire to weave intelligent, descriptive transparency into my work in an astute yet plain manner, I’ll not use “perspicacity,” or even “perspicuous” in my column.
Now go, dear reader, give a nod to the snow outside, cozy up next to a fire and enjoy the sagaciousness found in the rest of this magazine.