Are Words Our Things

You have no notes—or sometimes you do, I made extensive notes for A Book of Common Prayer—but the notes give you only the background, not the novel itself. In nonfiction the notes give you the piece. Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.
Joan Didion, "The Art of Nonfiction" (via readability)
I've been mesmerized by Didion ever since reading her for the first time in high school -- funny to think of Didion among those other firsts, and there is something of the illicit about Didion's writing -- but I was particularly taken by this description of writing nonfiction as being "like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing." It reminded me a little of something of a few notes I took from reading about Ray Bradbury:
But there might be a second way to talk about writing -- and E. with her fascination with Benjamin might be better positioned to explain this than I -- writing as a project of collection and collation. And I don't mean in the vulgar sense of plagiarism, but something different -- writing is a way of establishing a set of relationships with the world around us.
Or differently, E. pointing to a different quote by Orwell:
“So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”
What runs through it all, I think, is this sense of the materiality of this whole process -- that words have a kind of thickness to them. I was once playing about with words and stumbled across this phrase:
are words our things
Though it could easily have been:
our words are things
And I like that slippage -- because it insists on the thing-ness of words while also asking, but are they after all? Somehow, from sculpture to this.


Jordan M said…
This dalliance with different words might explain why I don't mind dipping into my thesaurus every now and then just to 'see what's there'. It's fun to explore different words and other ways of describing things.

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