CALL ME ISHMAEL: EXPLORING WORDCRAFT

17 Oct 2017

AS A PUBLISHED AUTHOR, I have been reluctant to say too much about the craft of writing in spite of its current popularity and in spite of my devotion to the craft. Maybe it has something to do with privacy (considering a web culture so pitiably voyeuristic) or the thought of giving too much away (considering a web culture with sticky hands). I don't know.  What I do know is this: Writing is work. It is very satisfying work, but it is still work. "Writer" is a title better earned than acquired without cost. After all, it is something elusive we are after, not unlike the mythical creature in Melville's classic. It requires a chase. And precise aim.

 

Writing well is not something that can be achieved quickly, nor, in truth, would you want it to be. We value most those things that are won with effort. When I met my wife, Benita, it was love at first sight. The charm was [and remains] powerful, life-altering, and yet for all my lack of patience it had to bloom in its time, in its own strength, and in its own peculiar beauty. But even at full bloom it maintains its original fire, the heat of attraction, the effervescence that ignited the whole thing to begin with. Writing is like that, or it can be.

 

To write with sparkle and animation, with penetration and clarity takes time. To create the illusion of effortlessness in a text takes tremendous effort. That, and a refined ear. Your audience will know the difference. 

 

Language is a living thing and demands a healthy respect and vigilance to make it work for you. In his 2011 book, THE ADVENTURE OF ENGLISH: THE BIOGRAPHY OF A LANGUAGE, author Melvyn Bragg refers to the English language as "a hungry creature." In my biography of James I of England, I amplified that image. The context is Elizabethan English, the English of Shakespeare and Raleigh, of John Donne and Francis Bacon, but the statement is no less true today. 

 

Her English is without rule or harness, feral, wanton, a “hungry creature.” And she purrs in the hands of her masters.

—MAJESTIE: THE KING BEHIND THE KING JAMES BIBLE

 

Purr, indeed. That is the goal of the determined. Call Me Ishmael is not only a useful title for this series on wordcraft, it provides the metaphor that drives it, that moves it forward. Among famous first lines, it ranks with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” I happen to appreciate the economy of Melville's opening. With that same economy, the condensed version of MOBY DICK might sound like this:

 

Young man sets off for adventure on whaling ship captained by a sociopath with one leg who seeks revenge on a white whale but only manages to get everyone killed (except the whale and the young man). A cautionary tale.

 

Lucky for the young man, and for our use, his Hebrew name, Ishmael, means "God will hear." Indeed, writing is aural, a thing we hear. It lives in the ear, the truest and most reliable organ of the discerning writer.

 

Call Me Ishmael: Exploring Wordcraft is a long-range adventure that will, as any worthwhile adventure should, look into the soul of not just the craft, but that of the writer. Though not without instruction, this series is not about "writing tips." If you are looking for tips, you may be in the wrong pond. The dark blue water and the sea images suggest depth and hidden life, movement and wonder, the very things I love most about wordcraft. By the way, a craft is "any sailing or floating vessel"—Oxford English Dictionary. The metaphor is quite generous. 

 

Good hunting! 

 

One more thing: This series is not static. True to its nautical metaphor it operates on the principal of flood not fix, on movement not rest. I may find it necessary to edit on occasion, to amplify, compress, polish, or simply correct an entry, and reserve the right to do so. With cultivation, a post will grow over time, giving this series a kind of animation, a living quality, not unlike language itself. I will say more about revision, but the text you read today may take on a brighter, more accurate glow tomorrow, that is, until it looks, feels, engages, and inspires. Like a book.

 

David Teems is the author of 6 published books, including GODSPEED: VOICES OF THE REFORMATION, just released on Abingdon Press. If you wish to follow this series on writing, it is found under the category CALL ME ISHMAEL: EXPLORING WORDCRAFT.

 

 

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