I am so often, despite my appearance of nonstop yammering, at a complete loss for words. Like many, I suppose I am quite capable of being both concurrently simply by spouting whatever bits of detritus pop into my mind without regard to their needing any sense or substance. Perhaps I’m a born politician and simply haven’t responded to my vocation properly yet. And for this you may all be unspeakably thankful.
The Unspeakable brings me right back round to my theme: How I should love to be like the exquisite Dorothy Parker with her seemingly bottomless font of ingenious and witty and always-apropos bon mots. I wish I could think and speak like the inimitable icons of word history, like Martin Luther King Jr., Clarence Darrow, Mae West, Sir Winston Churchill, Sojourner Truth, and their glorious cohort. Oh to be so majestically, yea magisterially, glib and yet brilliant. I’m more often just stuck.
But then when I think about it with a tad of detachment I must suppose that behind the majority of all that ingenious wordplay was a whole lot of careful and long-studied word-smithing. In fairness to all of us ordinary mortals, it might be said that a goodly part of the skillful framing of ideas and passions into mythic, unforgettable expression in words comes from dedicated and relentless craftsmanship. It’s shaped by a process of editing and critiquing and fine-tuning, whether with others’ assistance or in scholarly solitude, laboriously penned on paper in a leather-lined study or scratched with stone on a jail cell wall or recited until gleaming with polish while staring into a mirror.
Sure, someone gets lucky with the off-the-cuff potshot once in a while, but most of those stirring word pictures that stand any test of time were painstakingly crafted to meet the need of the occasion. No long-remembered story or speech is likely to spring from the woefully un-gifted or the sparklingly talent-free breast of even the most patient and committed worker, I should think, but I suspect in addition that a majority of those poetic bursts for which even the most spectacular of natural linguaphiles are best known come from a constant internal kaleidoscopic tumble aimed at ordering their thoughts into a more perfect set of images, at opening windows more ideally designed to reveal the sense of their story when they finally do tell it.
I’ll make an exception for the astounding Sojourner, whose most famous truth, spoken in a magnificent moment of rhetoric despite a certain enforced lifelong limitation on her education, not to mention her being a Mere Woman, was apparently extemporaneous, and is appropriately known by its signature repeated phrase, “Ain’t I a Woman?“. For, after all, there’s the artful use of words, and then there’s the genuinely inspired use of words.
But for my part, I believe I’d better commit to working it out in the traditional way of practice and mistakes and–when I’m lucky–progress. And then more practice. Even my hero S. J. Perelman, from whose Promethean brow sprang a seemingly endless stream of miraculously hilarious and sparklingly snarky phrases and tales, was a tireless collector of ideas and librarian of a vast store of ridiculous names and outlandish colloquialisms just so that he would have them all at hand and well ingrained in his psyche when the right moment arose for their ultimate use. So I will happily take up the tiny corner of his mantle that I dare to touch and follow in those wacky yet hard-working footsteps of his as they meander through the wordless dark, picking up stray nouns and adverbs wherever they shine most brightly.