English is so weird.
No, really. We have only 26 letters and a hodgepodge vocabulary that seems to make fun of itself. We use insane spelling and restrictive grammar that make no logical sense.
I once heard the joke that English doesn’t “borrow” from other languages; it follows them into dark alleys, knocks them out, and takes their wallets.
Nobody can tell me that isn’t true. It leads, after all, to this kind of nonsense:
Yet somehow, we use this cockamamie language to create beauty and power, to communicate multi-layered concepts and share one another’s lives. We use our broken, Frankensteinian tongue to reshape entire world views, to give hope, and to create empathy. That’s why, in spite of its flaws, I love it.
If you’re going to be a writer, you need to learn to love it, too—even when it drives you crazy.
Why All This This Matters
Before I go into examples of language I love, I need you to know that there are two crucial reasons why you need this:
- Loving language will show you how it’s done well, giving you more tools in your toolbox when you want to express a concept or convey a scene.
- Loving language will remind you why you’re doing this crazy writing thing when it gets hard. That reminder can keep you going in the darkest of times.
Most of us can remember the first time we wanted to write.
For some of us, it was recent, possibly inspired by some other book’s success, or because we found escape/comfort/confirmation in something we picked up and read.
It’s important that you latch onto the thing that inspired you, and that you start to figure out why it did.
Falling in love with language means falling in love with the rhythm of a sentence, with the power of word-placement, and the power of connotation. It means knowing what words really mean outside of a dictionary.
Note that just like any love, this is an intense, intimate, and extremely personal experience. I can’t tell you WHAT to fall in love with, nor should I. What I can do is show you some of the things I’ve loved, and why, and hopefully teach you how to look for things to love.
It’s absolutely okay if none of them resonate with you. The goal is to know what moves you to love language. My examples will hopefully just show you how to find them.
Falling in Love with Language
It’s a deeply personal experience, and hard to forget. In his book Surprised By Joy, C. S. Lewis attributed feeling true joy (not “happiness”) as a result of reading certain words:
[T]here came a moment when I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegnner’s Drapa and read:
I heard a voice that cried
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead—
I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then […] found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.
In that moment, the words carried him out of himself and somewhere else. He fell in love with the language.
For me, those moments happened first through Tolkien’s lesser-known works, such as The Silmarillion and the posthumously published Lays of Beleriand. For the sake of using something a little more familiar, I’ll quote The Hobbit:
The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.
For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gloaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought, and light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword.
On silver necklaces they strung
The flowering stars, on crowns they hung
The dragon-fire, in twisted wire
They meshed the light of moon and sun.
Read that out loud. I dare you.
There’s power in these words.
I still hear it in John Huston’s voice. Phrases like light they caught to hide in gems on hilt of sword conjures a truly magical feeling for me, harkening to something greater and more other than I can define, like a memory too distant to truly recall.
In other words, reading this gives me an escape by taking me out of this world and into another—which is why I strive so hard to do exactly that in my own books.
See, here’s the thing: if you don’t love the language, if you have yet to fall in love with it in some way, your reader may not fall in love with yours.
This is the true meaning of Robert Frost’s quote, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” It means that if you’re not passionate about the words you put down, your reader will struggle to connect with them, too.
Think back. You want to write; you want to badly, or you wouldn’t be here. What did you read that moved you to become a writer? It may be difficult to remember off-hand; it may be that you have story ideas, but you haven’t fallen in love with language yet.
That’s okay. You still can.
How to Fall in Love with Language
Falling in love with language can happen with just about any piece of writing—which is why it’s so important to read outside your chosen genre. Francine Prose puts it this way in her book Reading Like a Writer:
The well-made sentence transcends time and genre. A beautiful sentence is a beautiful sentence, regardless of when it was written, or whether it appears in a play or a magazine article.
A Few Things I’ve Loved
One of the times that happened to me was in The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin. Now, this book is literary fiction; it’s not my usual cup of tea. It has no magic and no monsters, no supernatural elements of any kind, and yet it’s one of my favorite books ever. Why? Because Zevin uses the English language with the skill of a master origami artist.
I am about to quote a line from that book.
You will probably have an emotional reaction to it.
She was pretty and smart, which makes her death a tragedy. She was poor and black, which means people say they saw it coming.
You probably just went, “Holy !#@$%.”
That was Zevin’s intent. And yet, is this really phrased in a way that isn’t true to life? Can you look at it and say no one in your life would fall into one or both of those categories? Zevin has portrayed a keen observation of the human heart both thought-provoking and infuriating, poignant and pointed until it’s as real as anything that happens on the news.
It causes the reader to react, which in turn helps the reader to empathize with what the protagonist chooses to do. This is effective writing.
Here’s another example: have you read The Book Thief? The first line of this book is spoken by Death, and it’s one heck of an opening:
*** HERE IS A SMALL FACT ***
You are going to die.
I love this use of language. Suddenly, the atmosphere for this book is set. The narrator’s attitude is outlined, along with a possibly morbid sense of humor. And from this point on, you already know there is no safety net if you read on. This has set the tone and the rhythm for the whole book.
Another example comes from The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss:
If this story is to be something resembling my book of deeds, we must begin at the beginning. At the heart of who I truly am. To do this, you must remember that before I was anything else, I was one of the Edema Ruh.
This book is high fantasy, which is very much my taste, but what I love here can be broken down in a couple of parts: Rothfuss builds to a climax with each statement as a step, so that when you reach the words Edema Ruh, even though you have no idea who or what they are, you feel the power of that name. You feel that it means something, that there’s a history and a dignity and some kind of inherant worth there. He’s created mystique not by telling you what the Edema Ruh are (though of course, he eventually does), but by showing that this identification means more than everything this person has accomplished in his life.
A Few More Things I’ve Loved
Another random example is from Bossypants, Tina Fey’s autobiography. This is a funny woman, no matter what one may think of her politics, as her description of impending puberty shows:
At ten I asked my mother if I could start shaving my legs. My dark shin fur was hard to ignore in shorts weather, especially since my best friend Maureen was a pale Irish lass who probably doesn’t have any leg hair to this day. My mom said it was too soon and that I would regret it. But she must have looked at my increasingly hairy and sweaty frame and known that something was brewing.
Brewing, indeed. For those of us who are far enough past this unpleasant process to laugh at it, that is pretty funny.
How about this one from The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin:
Her boredom rose so strong in her sometimes that it felt like terror: it took her by the throat.
I felt that. I felt it, as though that terror-boredom were my own. I have just empathized with a character whose life is so different from my own that she should feel like an alien.
How about some more humor, this time by Terry Pratchett in The Color of Magic: A Novel of Discworld.
It was all very well going on about pure logic and how the universe was ruled by logic and the harmony of numbers, but the plain fact of the matter was that the Disc was manifestly traversing space on the back of a giant turtle and the gods had a habit of going around to atheists’ houses and smashing their windows.
That made me laugh hard. (Maybe it won’t do that for you, and that’s okay. Like I said, this is all a deeply personal thing.)
I’ll end with one of my absolute favorite authors, Neil Gaiman (you MIGHT have noticed I quote him all the time). His use of language thrills me, amuses me, shocks me, and grips me. Try some of the humor in American Gods:
He decided that if he were a real woodsman, he would slice off a steak and grill it over a wood fire. Instead, he sat on a fallen tree and ate a Snickers bar and knew that he really wasn’t a real woodsman.
Or this disturbing one from Trigger Warning:
There are things that wait for us, patiently, in the dark corridors of our lives. We think we have moved on, put them out of mind, left them to desiccate and shrivel and blow away; but we are wrong. They have been waiting there in the darkness, working out, practicing their most vicious blows, their sharp hard thoughtless punches into the gut, killing time until we came back that way.
Or this outright terrifying if deceptively subtle statement from Neverwhere:
Richard found himself wondering whether Mr. Vandemar was the kind of person to whom you said, “Don’t hurt me,” and, if he was, whether it would do any good.
Oh my word. Poor Richard. That’s an absolutely horrifying place to find himself, and yet in the particular phrasing of this, you can see two things: one, Richard is in deep trouble, and two, Richard is in mild shock. He’s clearly in great danger, but he’s not capable of full emotional response at the moment. You can feel his numbness, the fear that’s crept in and frozen his heart.
Read, and Fall in Love
The more you read, and the more you react to what you read, the more you’ll fall in love with it.
You’ll have your own list. The books above are some of mine, but I certainly don’t expect you to share them. I expect you to have your own.
Maybe you’ve never made a list before of lines or books that helped grow your love of language. Well, good news: it’s time to start building one.
I’m going to end with this Neil Gaiman quote (I did warn you) from M is for Magic:
Stories you read when you’re the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you’ll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit.
Have you fallen in love with language yet? Let me know in the comments.
Maybe you already have a list of phrases and books that helped you fall in love with language. Maybe you’ve never thought about it before. Either way, it’s time to have some fun with it now.
Today, I won’t ask you to write pages upon pages. Instead, I want you to craft something small—a paragraph, or perhaps just a single sentence.
You can start anywhere you want: you could write about the final face-off between your protagonist and their nemesis, or you could write about making breakfast this morning. When it comes to language we can fall in love with, no topic or genre is off limits.
Take fifteen minutes to write just a line or two. Play with the words and try new ideas until you hit upon a sentence (or a few sentences) you really like.
Share your masterpiece in the comments. Then, read your fellow writers’ work and let them know how their writing makes you fall in love with language.
BONUS: I want to know what made you fall in love with language in the first place. Share some of your absolute favorite phrases and books in the comments below. Now, remember, there’s no judging here; everyone has different tastes, so when you respond to other writers’ choices, just enjoy the variety.
You might even discover a few new books you haven’t read yet. I know I’m looking forward to that!