Happy Valentine’s Day!
Or, for those of you who object to an arbitrary holiday fabricated by a corporation for the purpose of selling cardstock at ridiculous profit margins, I wish you a dour Singles Awareness Day (SAD). Yeah, Valentine’s Day is way more fun, so let’s go with that.
In celebration of February 14th, I had my writing students perform an amusing little exercise that ended with a lot of laughter. (My students are now sworn to secrecy about it because if anyone finds out that we have fun in my class it would ruin my rep.) I got this exercise from a very distinguished colleague, and it goes like this:
Write a love poem which includes the following words: Sludge, Penguin, Search Warrant, Pancreas, Textbook, Byproduct, Garlic, Banana Slug, Memo, Boredom, Recycling Bin, Porcupine.
Most of the responses were hilarious, although I’m not sure Hallmark would want to make a card out of any of them. Still, a few budding poets managed to turn the words into something that actually sounded nice. Here’s one clever example:
You could read me like a text book
Since the day I said “Hello,”
We’re a byproduct of love
Didn’t you get the memo?
Babe, you’re like a porcupine
You pierced right through my heart,
I’m as sure that I love you
As I am that they sell garlic at K-Mart.
Your love is a wall
I wish only to break through
If beauty were a crime
They’d have a search warrant out for you.
You’ve got me all goopy inside
Like a pile of warm sludge.
You try to push me away
But, girl, you know I won’t budge
Got me feelin’ like a penguin
But this ain’t happy feet
You’re everything in my life
You’re the reason my heart beats.
Okay, not exactly a love sonnet by Sir Phillip Sydney, but I’d wager it’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever read that included the word “Sludge.” Too bad he didn’t have time to write a verse about recycling bin.
Despite the goofiness, this exercise contains an important lesson about writing. If it had been a poetry class, I might have added requirements to follow a certain meter or structure, but, even more essentially, this illustrates the power of words to create an impression. The right word can make your readers feel like they’re right there, seeing and feeling what you’re describing. One single wrong word (such as “penguin” or “banana slug”) can send them into a tailspin of disbelief. This student did a great job of forcefully romanticizing the un-romantic words, but you can see how hard he needed to work to tap dance around the inherent connotations.
Like Mark Twain said: “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lighting bug and the lighting.”
I’d add that the different between the right word and the absolutely wrong word is funny. Take a malapropism for example: “that orchard hires migraine workers.” Or Dan Quayle’s famous line: “Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.” Or what a student of mine once actually said: “My uncle has prostitute cancer.”
You writers out there know what I’m getting at. A single key word can make or break an entire description. Do any of you have a favorite example of the right word that created the lighting? Or the wrong word that sent the whole house of cards toppling to the floor? I’d love to hear your picks.