The Tangling of Words.

The more words we use, the more we abuse, and the more we abuse, the more words we use.

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Courtesy of Dreamstime

What you’ve got to say, you say.” Shel Silverstein

As simple as Shel Silverstein’s poems may seem, they were a daily struggle. He was a constant revisionist, what some might call a niggler. Every poem used the fewest words possible, including this one about life itself:

Oh, if you’re a bird, be an early bird/ And catch the worm for your breakfast plate/If you’re a bird, be an early bird — /But if you’re a worm, sleep late

Describing Silverstein as a children’s book author misses the significance of this simplicity. Adults reading his stories to their kids soon find themselves moved without perhaps understanding why. In “The Giving Tree,” for instance, there’s something so universal about the tree “giving without consideration of itself.” This speaks to all of us (parents or not).

Keep it short, make sure a thirteen-year-old can understand it. That doesn’t mean talking down, it actually means talking up, respecting the reader’s time and ultimately their patience.

In our complicated lives, where we’re filled without filling, busy without learning, Silverstein’s words make more than sense—they make us realize how profound simplicity is, and so contrary to “mass without meaning.” We live with mass and meaninglessness.

There’s a rule in Reader’s Digest: Keep it short, make sure a thirteen-year-old can understand it. That doesn’t mean talking down, it actually means talking up, respecting the reader’s time and ultimately their patience. This helped explain Silverstein’s book: “Falling Up.”

Maybe that’s the problem today. We aren’t reading words that respect our time. Take a headline like “You’ll never have to ask for love again.” I started reading this article, only to be more confused at the end than I was at the beginning:

“To judge yourself kindly is to feel worthy and respected and appreciated, and that’s when you’re open to receiving love instead of constantly having to ask for it, which is when you stop doubting your ability to BE loved and find the love you always desired.”

A worm that loves attracts many worms, and they’ll get eaten first.

I’m all for finding love and fulfillment, but I got lost. Why couldn’t the writer just say: “If you love yourself, others will figure you must be onto something.” Isn’t that the basis of love? Or as Silverstein might have written: A worm that loves attracts many worms, and they’ll get eaten first.

It’s also interesting how writers can fall back on worn-out phrases, turning interesting thoughts into professional monotony:

As more and more individuals and organizations become semi-proficient on these various platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram in particular) are we destined to endure one long streaming feed of incessant babbling?”

Isn’t what we’ve just read “incessant babbling”?

It’s like René Descartes and his: “I think, therefore I am.” Hundreds of years later, he’s still a genius, and we get nothing for writing in a washroom cubicle: “I think, therefore I flush.”

“What you’ve got to say, you say,” Shel Silverstein once summarized. Who among us doesn’t admire that kind of brevity? And who among us isn’t telling themselves: “I could have come up with that.”

Hundreds of years later, he’s still a genius, and we get nothing for writing in a washroom cubicle: “I think, therefore I flush.”

It’s like René Descartes and his: “I think, therefore I am.” Hundreds of years later, he’s still a genius, and we get nothing for writing in a washroom cubicle: “I think, therefore I flush.”

So why do we tangle our words? Why do platitudes constantly sneak into our sentences? The answer to the second is wrapped up in the first. Tangled words seem to cut off our supply of common sense.

After the Las Vegas shootings, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority put out the following billboard: “We’ve been there for you during the good times. Thank you for being there for us now.” Someone wrote this one word response: “Goosebumps.” That gave him goosebumps?

Considering the nuttiness that exists today, you’d think our writing would at least be as colourful. Yet we fall back on worn-out phrases all the time.

I got goosebumps seeing people take a direct flight to Nunavut rather than hang around McCarran airport. I mean, if a mentally threadbare accountant can take 16 assault weapons into a hotel, imagine the level of weaponry in the airport’s executive lounge.

Considering the nuttiness that exists today, you’d think our writing would at least be as colourful. Yet we fall back on worn-out phrases instead.

I think back to authors like James Thurber and E.B. White who could spend a week on one paragraph.

Hunter S. Thompson once typed out the entire “The Great Gatsby,” just to understand the rhythms of Fitzgerald’s writing. He had good reason. Here’s just one line from Fitzgerald’s greatest novel:

When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of mortal attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.”

We’d rather take comfort in knowing we didn’t offend anybody than having a unique thought.

Think of how the rest of us write. How often do we spend more time qualifying our thoughts, hoping not to offend, than on the thought itself?

At the beginning of my career, I wrote In Memoriams for a country radio station. The funeral homes would call in the details with the same words of condolence. These days, it seems like we’re doing the identical thing. We trot out old words and phrases like they’re death notices.

One writer who continually writes great copy is Dave Barry, former humorist with the Miami Herald. When asked to defend the media’s coverage of the stock market, Barry explained it this way:

Perhaps you wonder how come we here in the news media always make such a big deal about the stock market. The answer is simple: We don’t understand it. We have an old saying in journalism: ‘If you don’t understand something, it must be important.’”

The great thing about Dave Barry is he doesn’t sound like everyone else. Rather than tangle his words, he makes them funny. Somehow it comes across as true — or at least asinine — which is often truth as well.

Surely, we can do better than funeral homes.

Perhaps that’s what we all need in our writing. We need a little truth, a little asinine bravery, and, perhaps, something funny. Otherwise, we’ll continue sounding like those In Memoriams.

Surely, we can do better than funeral homes. We need to stop tangling and abusing words. We need to become simple-ists like Shel Silverstein. Look how he handled the difference between rich and poor:

The little fish eats the tiny fish/The big fish eats the little fish — /So only the big fish get fat/ Do you know any folks like that?

Robert Cormack is a novelist, humorist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores (now in paperback). Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.

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I did a poor imitation of Don Draper for 40 years before writing my first novel. I'm currently in the final stages of a children's book. Lucky me.

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