Hemingway, writes Harry Bruce in his great little book Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers,
‘had such trouble “getting the words right” on the last page of A Farewell to Arms that he rewrote it thirty-nine times. “The first draft of anything,” he said, “is shit.”‘
‘Getting the words right’ – damn! That goes to the heart of the business, doesn’t it? And for anyone who cares about words, not so easy either. You have ‘reality’ out there – life, experience, all of that stuff, in all of its glorious and inglorious messiness, its allusions and pitfalls and contradictions – and then you have words. Words which have to be placed, one at a time, in the right order. In a sentence. In sentences piled up, one after the other.
Like a genetic sequence.
The right words, in the right place. At the right time, too.
Bit like nailing jelly to the wall, isn’t it?
So word-watching is fun – endlessly amusing. A way of ‘reading’ the world. Infuriating, also. Think of the weasel-words of politicians, the lies and distortions of lovers and cynics, the self-regarding words of the rich and famous, the unvarnished utterances of that mythical creature the Common Man – and the Common Woman.
I think of words as preening peacocks, shy cooing doves, dazzling sunbirds – as vultures, too, all scraggy neck, hooked beak and talons.
And words have habitats – we spot them in political spaces, and cultural ones, in public worlds and personal. They live in – inhabit – the vast grey marshes of Untruth, Ignorance and Obfuscation; the thickets and sand-traps of Marketing and Advertising; the eroded valleys and daunting cliff-faces of Religion and Ideology; the glaciers and oceans of Literature and Philosophy; the blasted deserts and the peaceful olive groves of Love and Intimacy.
Words face, as we know also, in multiple directions: hiding and revealing, feeding and feasting – betraying, if you look closely, more than they are intended to say.
Words are fascinating. And every now and then, they are beautiful. Maybe true, too: in all the bewildering and enchanting senses of truth and truthfulness.