Words That Don't Exist

Words That Don't Exist

“I knew perfectly well what existed
as emotional fact in my own ‘style,’
but not necessarily in that of my characters.”

By DeWitt Henry, Literary Bookmarks Editor

DeWitt Henry

Critic James Wood observes that “tension between the author’s style and his or her characters’ styles becomes acute when three elements coincide: when a notable stylist is at work, like Bellow or Joyce; when that stylist also has a commitment to following the perceptions and thoughts of his or her characters (a commitment usually organized by free indirect style or its offspring, stream of consciousness); and when the stylist has a special interest in the rendering of detail” (How Fiction Works [2008], 37–38).

I can’t claim to be notable, but levels of style preoccupied me in my novel, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts. I tried to convey my characters’ emotions and thoughts through their vocabularies and tones rather than my own. Though this was not so easy—more often than not I knew perfectly well what existed as emotional fact in my own “style,” but not necessarily in that of my characters.

In a funeral scene toward the end, the character Louie is fifty-six, and a supervisor in a candy factory; his wife has died after nine month’s decline with stomach cancer. Their thirteen-year-old retarded daughter, whom he loves, has had to be institutionalized and his three sons are estranged from him. Off work, he’s aimless at home between the death and actual burial.

The scene needed to be glossed and truncated because of its place in the novel; at the same time I wanted to convey Louie’s disorientation and grief, the emotional details of which drew on my father’s recent death and my mother’s grief. I had a gut intuition of my character’s emotions. I also had a larger, analytic sense of things he could not articulate.

He wanted Josie there (because she’d want, and all of them together), and Frank and Nancy get, and keep her overnight. And Nancy cook (over their place, dinner next night, she gave him list to shop). And they’d come down early; and Dom and Victor, eleven; twelve-thirty, limousine would take them all to cemetery; and afterwards, they’d eat. And then was crap with priest—they’d neither of them been to Church (she’d got last rites at hospital), and didn’t want the visitation or the mass, just service at the grave, and memorial later. Keep it simple, not prolong; kids all busy, loss for each too different to share; and each with lives, and only his bewildered now and hurt and turned all question, deeper, bigger than they’d want or he could bear to have them touch. And plans and errands weren’t enough, and still were gaps of time, and nothing but to feel or realize when he didn’t; and sum of all had happened, weight of cruelty to her, and witness sadder and too full. And Thursday, picked up suit, did shopping (Therese called, upset she couldn’t come); cleared out medicines, and left for Nancy closet, dressing table, drawers—clothes, he’d call Salvation Army, something—and then just needed get out, walk, and like he had with Josie, farther, out one neighborhood to next, and hunched against the chill, and as if motion only searched its lack, and world went on, and sky, and houses, yards, and school team scrimmaging, and lives, but curious and blank, and grief alone as fact; and then for moments, nothing else, just coach and boys and whistle blown and one kid angling out for pass, and world without him, homes they’d go to, mothers cooking, old man home from work, all natural, enduring, and intact.

The cover of the book The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts by DeWitt HenryThat last phrase was obligatory. I wanted something extra to reinforce the strangeness of the “world without him,” and syntactically it had to balance “but curious and blank.” I wanted the unafflicted world, unaware of and indifferent to his grief, to be meaningless one moment and overwhelmingly meaningful to itself the next. I had an immigrant theme in the book, and wanted images of alienation and bafflement in the face of a new land. In grief, he would feel like an extraterrestrial, invisible at will, or with some secret knowledge, like a gun in his pocket. One moment, he would feel fiercely self-aware, and in the next, a total dissolving of self into the surround of normal lives. The last phrase was ironic on his part: hurt, elegiac, and wondering. It had me word hunting for a week: all “something, something, something.”

Eventually, I broke down the spread of choices into categories. First, as opposite to “curious” and the idea that he couldn’t make sense of their world, but they could, a cluster like this:

Uncomplicated, familiar, ordinary, obvious, clear, plain, evident, known, coherent, unconfused, patent, certain, easy, simple, normal, solid, definite, distinct, confident, recognizable.

Second, against the senselessness of things to him, the contingent, axiomatic certainty of the world to others:

Meaningful, logical, axiomatic, assumed, given, certain, basic, fundamental, sound, granted, inevitable, valid, solid, proper.

Third, in contrast to the impermanence of things for him, and their invulnerability, the constancy of this world to itself, as if that constancy were a flaw:

Enduring, strong, fast, firm, unaltered, proceeding going on, constant, tireless, perpetual, abiding, fixed, settled, founded, persisting, continuous, dependable. 

Fourth, and related to that, the sense of wholeness (where he feels stricken and incomplete):

Complete, coherent, intact, unimpaired, full, continuous. 

Fifth, another shading suggesting no doubt, a totally certain reality:

Immune, flawless, seamless, safe, secure, inviolate, guaranteed, unshakeable, confident.

Sixth, thinking of different species, that they are as different from him as fish, say, and this world as suited to them (and not to him) as another element:

Open, cordial, inviting, hospitable, native, habitable, congenial, suited, obliging, accommodating, supportive, populous, agreeing, akin, like practiced, fortunate, owned, possessed.

These lists grew out of a number of false stabs, such as:

  1. all natural and plain and certain to itself.
  2. all natural and given and fixed.
  3. all familiar, ordinary, open to itself.
  4. complete and natural to itself.
  5. coherent and intact.
  6. all orderly and populous.

“Natural” was the first word I settled on, combining the ideas of normal and simple and clear, with those of axiomatic—and it fit his vocabulary (as say “evident, coherent, inevitable” did not)—and the larger sense of a nature that includes death. “Intact” I also wanted since it combined the meanings of unimpaired, solid, seamless, coherent. I remained confused, however, when it came to the third term, which should add something rather than repeat (such as “natural and normal”). After more agonizing, the idea of time seemed important to emphasize, the perpetuality of their unquestioned world, that there will always be mothers cooking, always be family, always be a self, and that a time word would work better as an image than a subsidiary notion such as “taken for granted,” or “given” that it implied: “all natural, (and something), and intact.”

Lasting didn’t sound right, nor did constant; perpetual wasn’t his language, nor abiding; continuous was vague and too many syllables.

I finally settled for enduring—“all natural, enduring, and intact”—but I’m still not satisfied with it, since it seems too eloquent for the style. But after that much searching I couldn’t find a better word, and the idea for once seemed more important than that final adjustment of tone. The exact word, the exact one word, right in tone and rich in connotation, I finally convinced myself did not exist. A wiser writer either would not have structured that much pressure on a phrase, or would have realized sooner that no such word existed.

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