Feb/13/2012 12:58 PM Filed in: Writing
The Universal Utility of "asdf"
Does this sound familiar? You're writing merrily away on your next great oeuvre when you suddenly realize a particular word in the sentence you just wrote does not quite fit. There's a better word. You feel it in your bones, but you just can't quite put your finger, or your overworked and overworded brain on it. Roget has been thumbed, the ceiling has been scrutinized, the pacing has been aerobic, but all to no avail. Before you know it, it's time for lunch! And you're stuck. Patience, I am about to digress.
Many great writers have weighed in on this topic, notably Gustave Flaubert, who led a never-ending search for le mot juste. "When I discover a disagreeable assonance or a repetition in one of my sentences," he said in 1876, "I can be sure that I'm floundering around in something false. By dint of searching, I find the right expression, which was the only one all along, and at the same time the harmonious one. The word is never lacking when one is in possession of the idea." All right, Gus, watch your step or you might fall off that lofty pedestal on which you've deposited yourself.
My favorite teacher on the art of writing, however, is none other than Mark Twain. Mr. Clemens had quite a bit to say on the subject. For instance: "To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself...Anybody can have ideas--the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph." - Letter to Emeline Beach, 10 Feb 1868
"I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English - it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice." - Letter to D. W. Bowser, 20 March 1880
Sounds like he was talking to Hemingway, doesn't it?
Here's more: "Substitute "damn" every time you’re inclined to write "very." Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."
And finally, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter — it's the difference between a lightning bug and the lightning."
But we were talking about what happens when that one glittering phrase, that one perfect distillation of thought that needs to fly from brain to paper just won't leave the runway. That's when I haul out good old asdf. Here's a sentence, spoken by the ancient and cantankerous Alexander as he narrates Book II of The Bow of Heaven: "The short lines, a poem of excess, asdf my reluctant attention back to the rash and idiotic blunder I had committed only hours before in a moment of irretrievable optimism."
I could not think of that one perfect word, not for love or money. So I left it, and kept going, working on another scene altogether. Later, when the muse decided to plop her elegant derriere down beside me for another five minutes, she whispered in my ear, "gulled." Brilliant! I cried. (I can say it was brilliant, you see, because I didn't think of it, it was that lady draped in enough stone-washed linen to make Tim Gunn exclaim, fingers pressed with sincerity against his chest, "Dear, at all costs you must discourage the judges from using that word that is the absolute kiss of death: 'costumey.'")
There have been times, when, in order to keep writing, I have had to leave entire scenes for another day. Which is why I write asdf in bold to help me find the places that need polishing. Excuse me, a young lady has just entered the sanctum sanctorum, which in my case is our laundry room (seriously); she is whispering something Alexander just told her. It's perfect, and I have to go write it down before I lose it.