On the Subject of Words

When ever I go through dry-spells of writing on the blog and/or elsewhere, I start trying to think about what inspires me to try to write. I enjoy writing things. I like doing these blog posts, even though my traffic isn’t very high. I like writing in one of my five diaries (one for daily mundane things, one to name the best three things that happened to me each day, one as a music log, one as a reading journal, and one as a journal of beers/wines/liquors I’ve enjoyed). Sometimes I sit down with nothing in particular in mind, start writing, and before I know it there are 20 pages. I like doing that kind of thing.

I think that in order to enjoy writing, you have to be an avid fan of words. Words–let’s face it–are pretty much all we have to accurately describe ourselves as people and as a society. That’s not to diminish the power of beauty or of sounds or anything like that. But I can look at a painting and think it’s expressing one thing, and you can look at it and think it’s expressing another. In order to prove who’s right, we need to speak to the painter and get his or her WORDS on the subject. Words are very important. Maybe that’s why I’m frequently accused of using too many of them.

There are people who have added to my appreciation of words over time. Some are personal friends, some family members, and some are famous people I’ll never meet. In the remainder of this post, I’m going to focus on the latter. Following is a short (and VERY incomplete) list of famous people who have made me appreciate words and the craft of using them effectively (not to suggest that I’m always very adept at that, incidentally). These are ten people that have made me love the art of words. The list is kind of author-heavy because–while we’re facing things, let’s also face this–books are better than almost anything. But there are some speakers in there too. Let’s get to it…

10 People Who Made/Make Me Love Words:

  1. George Carlin
    For those who don’t know (Grandma?), George Carlin was a stand-up comedian and to lesser extent an author…and to even lesser of an extent an actor. Carlin is perhaps best known as the guy who presented the classic “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV” list. And for saying those words. A lot. He is primarily on the list because he worked with words in an unusual way. Most talented wordsmiths avoid profanity, or use it sparingly. Not so for Carlin. He was a master of the profane…but he was also a genius. In my life, I have frequently heard others repeat the mantra, “If you use swear-words, people will think you’re unintelligent.” Carlin spat in the face of that mentality. He was smart. VERY smart. He could work clean, but chose to speak in the vernacular of his audience. George taught me the importance of meeting people realistically and on their own level, while still daring to discuss big issues intelligently. And he taught me the importance of the RHYTHM of words. I got to see him perform about a year before he died. Watching him on stage was amazing. He was known for his long-winded lists that have a discernible beat to them–and watching him deliver them live, I noticed him tapping out the rhythm with his foot. It was like finally coming to understand jazz.
  2. Kurt Vonnegut
    Quite probably my favorite author. I’ve read pretty close to everything he’s published (in book form–not necessarily articles, etc). Vonnegut wrote in a way that brought humor to subjects that weren’t funny and made HUGE topics seem small and simple. One of the few voices to chronicle WWII in a way that made it seem like it wasn’t history, but was just another part of his own story. And it wasn’t even necessarily the BIGGEST point (even though he was a POW and survivor of the decimation and disassembly of Dresden). And he was fun. He showed me that you can write about anything–ANYTHING–in a way that makes the average reader understand, empathize, and relate to it. And you can make them laugh along the way.
  3. Brennan Manning
    I talked about Brennan a couple posts below. He was quite probably the finest Christian author to write within my lifetime, and I have not yet fully absorbed his loss. His words about Jesus were less commentary, less devotional, and less statements of authority than they were love-letters to an intimate friend. Brennan, apart from helping me to better understand God’s unfathomable, furious love, helped me to understand that communicating God to others is less about discussing sin than it is describing love.
  4. J.D. Salinger
    I read “Catcher in the Rye” once a year, every year. It reminds me to look out for phonies–especially when the phony is me. I have yet to place what it is specifically that draws me to Salinger. His mystery? His ability to turn his characters into something else on a dime (EG – The sudden suicide in Seymour: An Introduction)? His message of dissent? His message of only finding hope in the innocent? Not sure… But it’s there.
  5. Fydor Dostoyevsky
    I read “Crime and Punishment” because I felt like I needed to be able to pretentiously state that “Yes! I’ve read and understood Dostoyevsky!” But what I got out of it was something quite different. Dostoyevsky–the Mad Russian, if you will–painted pictures of deeply flawed people who found themselves sinking lower and lower until they’d become so flawed they couldn’t even recognize THEMSELVES anymore. His writings were basically a warning… Stay true to yourself, pull yourself up, and don’t become who you aren’t. And even if you do…at least KNOW you’re doing it. And the way he crafted his narrative, the reader was able to find themselves walking around in a dark place, but seeing the logic. I have not figured out how to do that yet, and I’m not sure I ever will.
  6. Nick Hornby
    Nick Hornby, you’ll note, is one of only three living individuals on this list (as of the time of writing, of course). He writes books that are little slices of pop-culture and are typically fairly reverential toward music. Even when music isn’t the primary topic, it still manages to find its way in–be it in the form of a teen girl with a Kurt Cobain obsession, a skater-kid who gets his girlfriend pregnant and Rufus Wainwright provides the soundtrack for the delivery, a shiftless, suicidal guy in a Drive-By Truckers shirt, or a semi-retired formerly semi-successful musician turned hermit. Hornby constantly reminds me that though pop-culture is a backdrop, it’s a pretty important one. He taught me that expression of your fandom can explain a lot for you. I learned more about his character in the Drive-By Truckers shirt by recognizing the band name than I did in a hundred or so previous pages. People dismiss critics. People think that talking about movies or books or music is something you do to kill time, but that it’s not that big a deal. Well they’re wrong. It matters. Talk about your interests…WRITE about them…and do so in a way that shows you’re more than just surface-level. It’ll tell people a LOT about you.
  7. Harvey Pekar
    Harvey is unique on this list for being the only comic book author listed. He wrote “American Splendor,” a more-or-less autobiographical account of his day to day life. Some of it was great. Some of it wasn’t. All of it was pure Harvey, and I’ve enjoyed just about every panel since being introduced to it. Harvey’s medium was unlike most word-based materials. A comic book has strengths and weaknesses that no other format has. Perhaps the most obvious is that it is also a VISUAL medium, where a book is (typically) entirely words. In every comic book, there is a picture and words that are also crammed into the frame, both advancing the plot and both carrying about 50% of the weight of the narrative. In almost any other format, the more words you can put into print, the better…but in comics, you’ve got to be brief. You only have so much space for words in a comic…so every one has to count. Harvey taught me, perhaps more than anyone else on this list, that sometimes it isn’t what you say or how you say it…it’s that it fits in the space allowed. He managed to be a genius in that space.
  8. Frank McCourt
    In many ways, Frank McCourt (author of “Angela’s Ashes,” etc.) is probably the author that has most influenced my own style of writing. McCourt came to America from Ireland, not having much to his name. He became a teacher by a method that just wouldn’t be possible in today’s America. After time, McCourt decided that he was not too old to keep dreaming and believing in himself, so he wrote his life-story. And he sold it. And he kept being a teacher, except now he was also an award-winning author. “Angela’s Ashes” is one of my favorite books. Part of the reason is that when one reads it, it isn’t written in a way that a classically trained author would write it. McCourt tells a few rambling stories that really end up going nowhere. He makes frequent use of run-on sentences. He ignores many grammatical laws. If he were grading it as a teacher, he would HAVE to take off points for syntax. But it couldn’t have been written any other way. He wrote it the way he lived it, and the way he heard it in his head. And that’s what Frank McCourt taught me… Find YOUR voice, and write with it. To hell with anyone who says otherwise.
  9. Cormac McCarthy
    McCarthy has gotten some acclaim in recent years. Author of books-turned-movies like “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road,” McCarthy is no longer the guy who “wrote those books about Mexico” all those years ago (aka “The Border Trilogy”). He’s now regarded almost as a suspense author–but I’m not sure that’s fair. McCarthy’s got a handful of books that delve into suspense, sure…but the only reason he was so successful at that is because he’s such a well-rounded author. His earlier work is breathtaking for its description of the American/Mexican plains. His latter work is breathtaking as well…but in those cases for his description of violence and bloodshed. Which is what interests me about his writing. He writes gore with the same elegance that he would describe a mountain trail. He describes bloody scenes in a way that paints them almost as a work of beauty. That’s a GIFT. And one I definitely can’t wrap my head around. To be able to describe the beauty of a crime scene? That should be impossible. The two don’t go together. But he does it. Cormac McCarthy has made me appreciate that if you’re good enough at something, you can make people see beauty even where there isn’t any.
  10. Patton Oswalt
    If I were to make a Mount Rushmore of standup comics, Patton would definitely be on it. (Probably in the Roosevelt position.) He’s probably my favorite living, working comedian. In my mind, he’s up there with Carlin, Hackett, Dana Gould, etc. In fact…that might be my full mountain… Carlin is Lincoln… Err… Anyway… Patton’s jokes are crafted with an edge that pushed boundaries, but with a warmth that has an innocence behind it–even when he’s being dirty. Even at Patton’s most vulgar, you get the sense that he’s not just saying it to be shocking…he’s actually FASCINATED by the prospect of the gross, pornographic, probably sticky thing he’s describing. He seems genuinely personally entertained by the stuff he’s talking about. He’s not a Dane Cook, who just wants to make people squirm. Patton wants to make people squirm AND think. And he’s smart. He’s this generation’s Carlin–there, I said it. Patton covers a variety of subjects in his act. Some are filthy, some are fun, some are political, some are serious… He’s one of the few out there that I’ve seen shift seamlessly from talking about deviant sex to talking about comic books without taking a breath. He’s completely unafraid to be himself. I heard him describe his process once as being “exactly how I feel two minutes before I go on stage is exactly how I feel on stage.” You don’t get any bullshit from Patton…and that’s what I appreciate. The lesson of watching Patton perform is that you should be absolutely unafraid to reveal who you are and to have fun with it, especially if you can make a few people think and laugh along the way.

And those are just the tip of the iceberg. If I were to keep going, I could fill the Internet. There’s inspiration all over the place, if you just keep reading, keep listening, and keep taking things in. Sometimes even crap has some gold in it. Gross.


Current Listening:

  • All Drive-By Truckers, all lovin’ day. Getting excited for the show on Friday! (The outstanding Old 97s will be playing too, but I am 99% sure DBT’s headlining. Either way, two bands that I really love in one big-ass Rock Show. Yay!)