The thing about working with words is that they can get tired and worn and they can lose their meaning. The wordsmiths who handle (and mishandle) them can easily forget this.
Yours Truly is no less guilty than any.
I was reminded of this this morning when Faithful Spec Reader took the time to tell me how upset he was over my thoughtless use of the phrase “God-awful” a few paras down in my recent Spectator column for Family Day.
He told me this:
“It reminded me of my schoolwork (75 years ago) before the ballpoint pens were invented. I would do my very best to write as neatly as I could, and when I was almost finished, still being proud of myself, sometimes a big drop of ink would fall on the middle of my page.
“This is what happened on that beautiful article called “Home” when you inserted, totally unnecessarily, a three letter word, and so took the awesome name of our wonderful God and Father in vain. You must know what one of the Ten Commandments say about that.”
He was referring to the three letters of “God” in that “God-awful” phrase.
Faithful Spec Reader went on to inform me that after he “scratched those three letters out of the article” he copied it that way for passing on to friends. “With that “awful blot of ink” removed I can still use that otherwise beautiful article.”
Finally, Faithful Spec Reader advised to get a new fountain pen.
Okay. I’m guilty as charged.
(One result, maybe, of reading too much Salinger these days. Reverence wasn’t his strong suit.)
In my guilt which I and I alone assume, I will add, however that I did bounce this piece off a few people before publication, as I often do. This time my editors included my children and The Children’s Mother. It was all relating to Family Day, after all.
I sat in our living room recliner the other evening and read it aloud if for no other reason than reading aloud is not the worst practice to carry on with. Reading this one to the kids also offered an opportunity for them to know their Old Man and his own family story — especially the prodigal nature of it — better.
“I would have written more about Opa,” advised my 10-year-old boy, after I read the piece. “And I would have made it more in chronological order. Right now it bounces all over.”
Hmm. The Children’s Mother was left amazed at the literary critique of said 10-year-old, and this opened up to comments from his two sisters, on how, no, the column was just fine being more conversational and less chronological, and, yes some other things also worked well.
Before long, we all moved on to more interesting things. But, as it was, nobody said a peep about the “God-awful” phrase.
This might mean that the children and their mother realize that Dad is too far gone on this sort of thing to try to tell him much.
Or it may mean that they don’t really think the phrase is such a big deal. (My 12-year-old girl, however, did once question why I used the word “crap” when writing this piece about Zak, our dog.)
Or it may mean that my entire family is rather deadened to the what is, in fact, a blasphemous phrase, but so commonly used that it hardly seems like it (See above Pt. #1)
What bothers me more (besides that I apparently easily think in a blasphemous way, never-mind write in one) is that this “God-awful” phrase is simply poor writing as much as it is anything. That’s where its literary awfulness resides.
It’s poor writing to the extent that it’s cliché, one of those expressions that has lost its value, that is it is void of meaning because it’s so commonly used. Any writer worth any salt needs to weed out these things long before publication.
And of this, I am also extraordinarily guilty.
So this is today’s confession from a prodigal writer (at best) and a blasphemer (at worst.)
A forgiven prodigal and blasphemer, though.
And (with the great risk of sounding clichéd) I do thank God for this.
The original piece for Family Day (and on the prodigal life), if you’re still inclined to read it, can be found here.