Almost the right word

“The difference between almost the right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Mark Twain

I’m not confident about my vocabulary. Certainly I know or can figure out most of the words I encounter when I’m reading. I credit my lifelong love of books as well as my early training in both Latin and German. I won’t back down from a challenging word.

Yet when I am stumbling through my own writing, I often have trouble coming up with just the right word to convey the image or tone or foreshadowing that I’m trying to achieve. I look at a verb, for example, and know that it isn’t up to the job I have given it and know there is a right word out there, but I often can’t think of the correct one to use. Later, when I happen upon the right word in some other context, I instantly know that’s what I needed, and I go back to my troublesome sentence to make the fix. Well, writing is rewriting, as the saying goes.

What bugs me is that I can’t call up these words when I need them (at least some of the time). I know the better word exists, and I nearly always have it in my personal lexicon, but I can’t summon it.

I’ve found that my writing is context-sensitive. What I mean by that is that I find myself most productive if I write in the same place at the same time every day. (For me it happens to be the dining room table very early in the morning when the house is quiet.) Thus when I’m in some other situation that might allow for a little creative work (say at the library), I can’t seem to find my way into my creative little corner. I can’t write as well, though I can make notes for later writing. Conversely, when I’m at the dining table in the early hours I don’t have all of the other influences of life before me. My focus gets narrow and to the task, but it seems to block out other input. There have been many times, for example, when I will sit at my computer and remember that there was something I wanted to get down or some subject I wanted to research, but as I sit there, I cannot recall what it was.

This is why I keep a note pad and pencil at hand. I scribble down my brilliant idea or pressing question and then have it when I need it back in the creative little corner. (The fact that Philip Roth’s protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman, in Exit Ghost does the same thing as a way to fight his growing dementia doesn’t bother me. I’ve been this way all of my life.)

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