Narrative ‘Tradecraft’ #5 – Diction

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April 20, 2016

By Reggie Marra, MA, ACC

Diction refers to word choice as we’re using it here, and not to the expanded meaning in which it connotes a style of speech that results from a combination of accent, inflection and tone – i.e. someone’s diction is deemed “good” or “bad” based how those elements work together.

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Word choice encourages us to remember Mark Twain’s suggestion that “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”  It does matter whether we choose slim, slender, thin, trim, skinny, scrawny, emaciated or skeletal (especially if we’re trying to compliment a loved one). If John Donne in “Meditation XVII” had written ‘and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tinkles, it tinkles for thee,’ perhaps Hemingway would have chosen another title for his novel. Consider the possibilities available for attaching an adjective to grandma or grandpa: old, aged, elderly, ancient, archaic, timeless, senile, stale, seasoned, or experienced.  You get the point.

In her poem, “Elena” Pat Mora’s title character says, “I stand by the stove and feel dumb, alone.” While the poem would work reasonably well had Mora used “stupid” or any similar word other than “dumb”, it would not work as well. There is not a better word in English for that line from that character (and you’ll have to read the poem to find out why!).

Word choice – our specific means of verbal expression – matters when we speak and write. Our words impact others, ourselves and our ability to heal, and they both evolve from and affect the evolution of our point of view, our images, our metaphors and our re-visioning. Beyond words, all of our means of expression matter as well. If we extend our tradecraft to include living consciously, we find any number of ways to express ourselves: countenance, gestures, gait, wardrobe, hair length and style, vocation, job and avocation, hobbies, mode of transportation, diet, religious or spiritual practice or lack thereof, political affiliation, web browsing, habits and routines – each and all of these say something about us, whether we have intentionally chosen them or they’ve chosen us.

With both our verbal and nonverbal means of expression – our overall diction, we have no control over how others will receive or interpret our choices. As every reader brings his or her experience and worldview to what we write, everyone we encounter will receive how we show up in the world through his or her unique point of view. It makes sense to choose our means of expression with intention, and then let go any desired or preconceived notions concerning how others will respond.

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More to the point, when our intention is healing, our choice of words and our habits of expression are crucial, and to a large part determined by how inclusive, comprehensive and balanced our view of the world is. To paraphrase Thomas Merton in Seeds of Contemplation: If you write for that which is larger than yourself, you will speak to the hearts of many; if you write for your contemporaries, you may make some money and some noise for a little while; if you write only for yourself, you’ll get disgusted pretty quickly and give up.*

So it’s not that we don’t write our own narratives in order to better understand ourselves and our world – we do; it’s that our diction will be limited or expanded according to the capacity and structure through which we write. If we tell our story through a lens that embraces all of humanity – or even larger – all that is, our language will be quite different and reach far more people than if our lens embraces only those who are more or less ‘like us’ – whether in terms of gender, nationality, religion, chronology, sexual orientation, politics or illness/wellness, among others. If our lens only embraces the specific details of one individual life, with no acknowledgement of any connection beyond our skin and our walls, the words and expressions we choose will be limited further still.

As Mary Catherine Bateson wrote, the stories we choose to tell do affect what we’re able to do next. The words we choose determine the accuracy and intimacy of the story we tell. It’s up to us to choose wisely and compassionately.

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*“If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men – you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted that you will wish that you were dead.”
– Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation
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Merton, Thomas. Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions, 1948.

Mora, Pat. Chants. Houston: Arté Publico, 1984.

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