“If the words don’t sing, the idea can’t dance.”
Note on my desk
“Dusk. Bats whickered through the corona of insects around the yard light.” Whickered. Whickered? Whoa! Sitting in my favorite armchair, I recently came upon this word while thoroughly enrossed in reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Whispery and mysterious, this inspired word choice evoked the sound of bats whooshing through the night. A trip to the dictionary revealed all: it means to snigger, to titter, to give a soft, breathy whinny or a sound of this type.
Don’t you love it when a strange word arrests your attention on the page? Or when a familiar one shocks you with fresh meaning? Who can resist the beginning of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night: “On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel. Deferential palms cool its flushed facade…
“Deferential palms” – amazing, isn’t it, how this image evokes feelings of luxury, privilege, insulation, ennui? How one arresting word when paired with a more ordinary one can blow open the door to a world that already seems lost before we find it?
I once met someone at a local Starbucks who turned out to be an author. We started talking about writers we loved and quickly found that we were both F. Scott fans. I called out the phrase “deferential palms,” and it was as if I’d uttered a secret code that united us in admiration. In a chapter called “Words” in her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose says Fitzgerald gave “a familiar word the sort of new slant that totally reinvents the language.” Now that’s writing dangerously — with just one word we can evoke worlds.