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Monday, January 12, 2015

Out with the Old Word

The Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, Spain, revels in chiaroscuro
Many cultures welcome the new year by throwing out what's old and useless. Some Latin American countries observe this idea symbolically by throwing water out the window or front door.

A step I recently had to take in the revisions of Awash in Talent reminds me of this process. There was a particular word I had delighted in using in a single instance, but every person who reads the novel stumbles on it or objects to it.

For your consideration, the context:

At eight years old, Beth began showing signs of severe allergies. My parents had always made me take her to play with my friends or to the mall on the bus, and you can imagine my annoyance, but those allergies made taking her anywhere completely intolerable. Every step had to be planned out beforehand, by my parents, because I just didn’t have the attention span for the long list of things to avoid doing, being around, or thinking about. I would look longingly at the kiosk for the DMV and Talent Registry, a fascinating study in chiaroscuro. Psychics, telekinetics, and pyrokinetics all had to register as the freaks they were, right alongside the happy fifteen-year-olds I longed to be one of, applying for driving permits. 

The first objection came from my critique group in the Barnes and Noble café. What does "chiaroscuro" mean? Would an eighteen-year-old know that word?

My reaction was that I learned it in high school. Did I go to a great high school? No, I merely paid attention to all words that came my way, and come on, this is a great one. It's an art term, meaning the way the artist contrasts light and shadow. I learned it in drama class, perhaps during the stage makeup unit or when close-reading a play. My high school drama teacher had married an Italian and loved to teach about the Commedia dell'Arte, so that may have something to do with her passing on this word of Italian origin. Until I attempted to use the term, I had no idea that not everyone learned this word when they were fourteen.

As you may be able to tell from the excerpt, the narrator would be a hard person to like in real life. She wouldn't choose her words according to what her audience would understand. She would seek out words to confuse and dazzle her reader, and that's what "chiaroscuro" has done to every reader who's come across it since then. These readers include some of the best educated people I know, in places as diverse as Rhode Island and Ireland.

So I've finally recognized it as a "darling," in the sense that it must be killed. I must accept that Emily's antisocial writing has to be curbed if I'm expecting any readers to keep reading. Out with what's old and doesn't work, in with a great workaday word, "contrast."

Imagine the above paragraph, replacing the "chiaroscuro" phrase with "a fascinating study in contrast." Smoother? Easier? More encouraging? Let's hope 2015 is full of these moments of sanity on my part.

I've been working very hard on Awash in Talent, especially this first part, Hope & Benevolent. The idea fairy has planted the seeds of a sequel! Soon I hope to share some really great news with you about when Awash in Talent will meet readers!