Words, Perfect Words

BooksI love words. I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t.

One of my other vocations beside being a writer is being a hypnotherapist. I don’t practice it much; writing is my first love and takes up 99% of my time. As a writer, I have always been enthralled at the power of words to describe, to evoke, to inspire, to create. As a hypnotherapist, I found the power of words took on an entirely new dimension and that is the ability to induce an alternate consciousness. It still amazes me that I can lead a person into an altered state from where they might examine their psychological issues, fears, even past lives, simply with words. What amazes me even more is that I, too, can be coaxed into an alternate state, even when I understand the process inside and out, even when I’m fully aware of what is happening, simply by the use of the right words.

Words, with all their delicate meanings and nuanced emotion, can build empires or bring them down. They can harden hearts or move us to tears. They are freely available and yet only a portion of humans seem to have the will or talent to string them together in meaningful ways. Yet there is simply no denying that words can capture our imaginations and move us in ways that nothing else can.

I was reminded of this one morning as I was sitting quietly, taking a mid-morning snack break and listening to the radio when The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel came on. Now I normally have music on but I normally hear very little of it; if I’m concentrating on my writing or any other task, my ears just stop working. I have that kind of attentiveness that lasers in on one thing at a time so any other considerations (husband included; just ask him) fade into white noise. When I’m writing, people often have to call my name several times before I can drag myself up out of the depths of a story to even hear them. It irritates the hell out of some people, but I don’t do it on purpose; it’s just the way I’m wired.

So anyway, The Boxer starts to play. This is one of a handful of songs that, when I hear it, I have to stop whatever else I’m doing and just listen (or better yet, sing along) because the way the words are put together just knocks me out.

I honestly don’t know what it is. The music and the cadence have a lot to do with it, of course, but the way the words come together is just magical to me. The meter, the rhyme, the images all combine to create a beautiful soap bubble of imagination that just picks me up and floats me away from the rest of the world. It just all comes together flawlessly.

Bits of books and movies can do the same thing to me. If I’m channel-surfing and Grapes of Wrath comes on, particularly Tom Joad’s soliloquy, I cannot surf away; I have to watch. I have to listen to every word.

Then I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there… I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folk eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.

And it doesn’t even have to be an entire verse or a long paragraph. How many of us would kill to know that the first line of our book resonated with and was instantly recognized by millions?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, …

Call me Ishmael.

I have some favorite books that I read over and over, but sometimes I might pick one up and read just one scene, one section that stuns me with its perfection. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, I can read the part about getting the Volkswagen off the stage in the school auditorium for the 50th time and still end up crying because it’s so blessedly funny. The same is true for Rita Mae Brown’s Six of One; I can read the part about the Fourth of July parade and end up weak from laughter. These are the kinds of things that writers dream about, when all the right words come together at the right time, in the right combination, in the right meter, the right cadence and the result is absolute perfection. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it doesn’t just flash like a star; it shines like a super-nova.

And that’s when we know that, for that one moment in time, we’ve reached the pinnacle of our craft; we’ve attained the highest potential for being a wordsmith, a writer. We’ve strung a few words together that capture the human psyche and take it on a journey of the mind.

Then it’s on to the next opus.

Your turn: what lines, phrases, passages grab you like this? What are your nominees for the most perfect words ever written?

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

38 thoughts on “Words, Perfect Words”

  1. “Honey,” Maggie Jones said. “Victoria. Listen to me. You’re here now. This is where you are.”
    ― Kent Haruf, Plainsong

    I love this quote because it says so much with so little. The protagonist, Victoria, is fretting over what is and what’s supposed to be and Maggie Jones stops her in her tracks with this reality check.

    Beautiful post, Melissa!

    1. Thanks, Melinda. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head–the brevity often times is what’s so stunning. I am amazed when writers can get so much meaning into so few words.

  2. This gives me chills every time I read it, no matter how many times I read it:

    “She looked wonderfully beautiful with her grand ivory throat, her large blue forget-me-not eyes, and her heavy coils of golden hair. Or pur (pure gold) they were – not that pale straw colour that nowadays usurps the gracious name of gold, but such gold as is woven into sunbeams or hidden in strange amber; and they gave to her face something of the frame of a saint, with not a little of the fascination of a sinner.” – from Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime by Oscar Wilde.

  3. “The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew.
    The furrow followed free;”

    Coleridge – The Ancient Mariner.

    He was speaking of the south-east trades.

  4. I can’t find my copy at the moment, but the passage in Lolita where Humbert Humbert recalls his long-lost summer love. Chills. Also, pretty much anything by Pat Conroy. Open a book and point.

  5. There are so many I can’t think of a specific one at the moment. Maybe I’m too easy to please. I do know exactly what you mean, though. Sometimes a passage will affect me so deeply the mood will stay with me for a couple of days.

  6. She walks in beauty, like the night
    Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
    And all that’s best of dark and bright
    Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
    Thus mellowed to that tender light
    Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

    She Walks in Beauty George, Lord Byron

    1. Mira, thanks; I’m certainly happy with the combination. Before I wrote this post, I hadn’t really thought much about how hypnotism has given me an appreciation for the power of words, but it’s definitely true.

  7. Great post Melissa. I’m picking up on the music and hypnosis – I have to have music while I write, precisely because it becomes a white noise that blocks out all distractions. I’ve sometimes wondered whether this isn’t a mild form of self-hypnosis? [My mind is logical by nature so getting it to be creative is a bit of a struggle].

    1. I’ve never thought of that, but you could be right. Using music like this definitely helps to focus the attention, at least for people like you and me. Others I know have a more diffuse attention and still hear everything that’s going on, even when they’re concentrating (like my husband). We’ve all got different brains, don’t we?

      1. “He sees angels in the architecture. Spinning in infinity. He says Amen! and Hallelujah!” is one of my favorites. Call Me Al is loaded with great lines and imagery.

        I’m also a fan of the Sting line from All This Time: “Fussin’ and flappin’ in priestly black like a murder of crows.”

        1. I also love Boy in the Bubble: “These are the days of innocence and wonder; this is a long distance call. The way the camera follows us in slo-mo, the way we look to us all.”

  8. Now I’m going to have to go back and re-read both The Prayer for Owen Meany and Six of One. Plus, The Boxer has the same effect on me.

    But, I remember novels more from the images the words create than the actual words. Faulkner is one of my favorites. The imagery in this long quote from As I Lay Dying still disturbs me:

    “The quilt is drawn up to her chin, hot as it is, with only her two hands and her face outside. She is propped on the pillow, with her head raised so she can see out the window, and we can hear him every time he takes up the adze or the saw. If we were deaf we could almost watch her face and hear him, see him. Her face is wasted away so that the bones draw just under the skin in white lines. Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candlesticks. But the eternal and the everlasting salvation and grace is not upon her.”

    And then there’s one of my other favorites, Stephen King, much for the same reason, he paints images in my head with his words. The first line from the Gunslinger is “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” So simple, but I can see it as clear as day.

    Thanks for a great article, for reminding me of things stored in the back of my head, and for reminding me of how powerful words can be.

    1. Sara, you make a good point that there’s two ways of thinking about words: the perfect way a few words fit together so strikingly, and the way a longer passage paints such a clear picture in our minds. I can’t read Faulkner, but that passage is fabulous. Reminds me that similes and allusion are huge parts of the magic.

  9. Ok, now I’m humming Paul Simon tunes… This is another of my favorites for the images he paints:

    Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together
    I’ve got some real estate here in my bag
    So we bought a pack of cigarettes, and Mrs. Wagner pies
    And we walked off to look for America

    Cathy, I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburg
    Michigan seems like a dream to me now
    It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
    And I’ve come to look for America

    Laughin’ on the bus, playing games with the faces
    She said the man in the gaberdine suit was a spy
    I said be careful, his bowtie is really a camera

    Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat
    We smoked the last one an hour ago
    So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
    And the moon rose over an open field

    Cathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping
    I’m empty and I’m aching and I don’t know why
    Countin’ the cars on the New Jersey turnpike
    They’ve all come to look for America, all come to look for America

    Countin’ the cars on the New Jersey turnpike
    They’ve all come to look for America, all come to look for America
    All come to look for America

      1. One of my favorites too! However, I bet the other passengers on the bus, especially dude with the bowtie, were relieved when they finally shut up, stared at the scenery and read a magazine. Crazy damn hippies.

  10. Warren Zevon with the alliteration award, however: “Little old lady got mutilated late last night”

    How many songwriters both rejoiced and gnashed their teeth in envy over that one?

  11. Charles Dickens, in “Hard Times” had so many!

    To this Observatory, then–a stern room, with a deadly statistical clock in it, which measured every second with a beat like a rap upon a coffin lid.

  12. Actor Sterling Hayden was quite a writer as well, speaking of the cabins in his schooner facing each other with the averted eyes of closed doors.

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