Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

An Oprah Nightmare

(To help promote Sucker Literary Magazine, I'm guest blogger this week at Lisa Voisin's wonderful webiste, where I discuss a reoccuring nightmare and offer an excerpt from my short story, "The Missing Ingredient."  Be sure to check it out, and pick up a copy of Sucker Literary Magazine volumes 1 and 2!)

In my dream, I’m either on Oprah or on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, but it could just as easily be The View or The Ellen DeGeneres Show or The Tonight Show.  In this alternate universe, authors are treated with esteem and appear regularly on talk shows, so right off the bat there’s a sense that reality has been suspended, and since I’m actually being interviewed, I appear to have had some success as a writer, hence pushing the dream towards the realm of fantasy.

But the next part is far too realistic.

I’m asked a question.  Oprah, having apparently come out of talk-show retirement, asks “Are there authors out there, successful ones, whose work you find prosaic?”

Prosaic.  Prosaic.  A word I should know.  Do know.  Sort of.  I mean, if I read it in a book, I’d probably be able to deduce its meaning.  But to actually have to respond to it in front of millions of people who are only watching me because the next guest is Tom Cruise?  Well, that’s the stuff nightmares are made of.

Not knowing the meaning of a word is a reoccurring theme in my dreams, for vocabulary has never been my forte.  Sure, I can string together words to create an effective sentence, but if you ask me to use demur and demure correctly in a sentence, I’m going to be in trouble.

I take some solace in that the average educated English-speaking person knows an average of 17,200 base words, a mere percentage of the total number of entries in the Oxford American Dictionary (over 180,000) and the Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (over 600,000).  (Base words are “word families.”  So the base word “love” might extend to words like lovely, lovable, lover, etc.).  There are words I clearly know, like the ones I’ve written thus far in this blog.  There are words I clearly do not know, like rehoboam.  This I can accept.  What kills me are the words I kinda sorta know but would be hard-pressed to define or use in conversation.  My kids have exposed this gaping hole in my chest of knowledge numerous times when asking me the meaning of a word that I thought I knew, but couldn’t for the life of me explain.  (“Well, capricious means…um…why don’t you look it up?”)  And even when I sort of know a word, like bereft (meaning: void of), I would never use it in conversation for fear of making a fool of myself in case I used it incorrectly.  I once used the word “indoctrinate” when I actually meant to say “inoculate,” which is sad an embarrassing, but I DO happen to know the word that describes the misuse of another word – malapropism.  I should have that word tattooed on my forehead.

In an effort to reinvigorate my quest for knowledge that took a major detour about fifteen years ago (two daughters), I’ve reintroduced an old custom of mine of looking up words unknown to me while reading novels.  If it’s a word I feel I can use in my own writing, I jot it down and later transfer it to an Excel spreadsheet of vocabulary words.  I find this much more useful than, say, following the word of the day at, because so often these words are obscure to the point of uselessness.  I’m not sure I’m going to impress my readers by using a word like tergiversate.  When I see a word in a book I’m reading, I at least have some assurance that it’s known and in use.

Widening one’s lexicon is something all writers should do, so that when the moment arises we can tap into the perfect word for the perfect situation instead of using five words that don’t do nearly as good a job.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with writing directly and plainly if it’s done well and if that’s your style.  But sometimes a word can really enhance one’s message.  Consider the following two sentences:

The man walked in, clothes soaked and dirty, and plopped down on the bench with a saturated slap.

The bedraggled man walked in and plopped down on the bench with a saturated slap.

Neither sentence will win me any awards, but bedraggled is the perfect word for this situation, and one I wouldn’t have even known existed if I hadn’t written it down some years ago in my Excel spreadsheet of words I’ve come across.

The book I’m reading now, Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, is a fairly accessible read, but that didn’t stop me from not knowing the meaning of the following words (how many of these could you use in conversation?):

Imprecation.  Praxis.  Ranunculus.  Filigreed.  Exhortatory.  Incipient.

And this is from a mainstream writer!  Give me a copy of Ulysses and I’d be toast.

Sure.  Some words, even after I catalogue them, don’t sink into my list of usable words, but over the years a few have managed to squeeze into my lexicon (so if I’m average, I now know 17,202 words).  I can now successfully use the word nonplussed (completely perplexed) in a sentence, and I’ve recently added aplomb (self-confidence).  I’m still waiting to come across the word that means, “Ineptitude at expanding one’s vocabulary.”

And yes, I now know what prosaic means.   Do you?  If not, here’s a hint: for some of you, it might describe your opinion of this blog.

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