Ink-Stained Scribe

An Exceedingly Long Entry on My Emulation of Tad Williams and Coming to Terms with the Box

If I ever write a paragraph (sentence, really) this good, I will die happy as a writer, published or un: was the smells Tiamuk remembered the most strongly, the million shifting scents: the dank salt smell of the wharves, spiced with the tang of the fishing boats; the cook fires in the street where bearded island men offered skewers of bubbling, charred mutton; the must of sweating, champing horses whose proud riders, merchants and soldiers cantered boldly down the middle of the cobbled streets, letting the pedestrians scatter where they might; and of course, the swirling odors of saffron and quickweed, of cinnamon and mantinges, that eddied through the Spice District like fleeting, exotic solicitations. (Tad Williams, The Dragonbone Chair, 489, Daw Books, 1988.)

Though I have to wonder, with such a masterful command of language, why Williams chose to write "most strongly" rather than the grammatically correct "strongest." Was it for emphasis? I refuse to believe it was ignorance, though I haven't ruled out some vernacular preference for the use--he's Californian, so who knows.

Williams's writing is so illustratively brilliant--he chooses just the right word to pinpoint what he wants to say, and then lets the description spiral out elegantly. Take, for example, the final thought in the quote:

...the swirling odors of saffron and quickweed, of cinnamon and mantinges, that eddied through the Spice District like fleeting, exotic solicitations.

Our first image is "swirling odors," which is an invitation to the reader to imagine these odors as something not only visible, but "swirling" through the air. I get an image of semi-transparent glitters (not unlike those stamped on Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, but I suppose that's just the produce of my mass-media-corrupted mind) twining aobut the heads of unseeing market-goers. Next, we're clued in to exactly what kinds of smells they might be--saffron, quickweed (whatever the heck that is), cinnamon, and mantinges (another mystery)--and I find the recognizable ones tangy and spicy, suggesting a mixture of the bright and the sensual. Next we get the word "eddied," an word superficially synonymous with "swirling," but which draws an association with water--the eddies of a stream or river.

This association of water gives the overall image a wider scope of movement--the scents are not only swirling in the air, but flowing in a direction, like the course of a stream. This sense is further enhanced by Williams's use of the adjective "fleeting" that follows, which draws on the same idea of a river's constant changing--the same drop of water never passing through the same river twice. Tying this back to the bright and sensual spices, I get a sense of the flirtatious, only strengthened by the "exotic solicitations," which gives this flirtatiousness a sort of marketability. By the time the sentence is through, Williams's market street has become populated by spectral, skirt-twirling temptresses in yellow and red and brown, caressing the faces of market goesrs as they flow onward like autumn leaves on a stream.

The most important aspect of this is that it shows the market as not only exotic to Tiamuk, but tempting. The goods to be sold are things worth buying, things bordering on sinful pleasure to him, and Tiamuk remembers this material wonder of the big city strongest (or, the alternate, "most strongly") of all.

This materialism, specifically with food, is fully realized farther down the page when the narrator recounts an episode in ;which a mentor character bought Tiamuk a spiced treat and "from that moment" became "as a god" to him. The way Williams manages to draw the reader detail by detail through the story both awes and fascinates me. I can look at work like this and disect it, examine the elements and bare the skeletal structure beneath, but can I ever hope to follow in fashion with my own writing? Will I just be another Dr. Frankenstein, hubristic in my attempts to follow in the creative footsteps of someone far more skilled?

I confess, even writing this analysis--my own attempt to study Williams's structure--feel like a fraud. Deep down, I guess it's just a firm sense that I'm not smart enough to really analyze and understand, that I cheated my university out of a degree in English and, though I was somehow tricky enough to mask it from my professors and sidle away with my night-before-due-date A essays, giddily shamefaced as a child who feels guilty about some small crime, but nevertheless pleased with the result, I could never manage to hide from myself the fact that it all feels like some big cheating game. All my knowledge feels superficial--stuff I know not because I worked hard to attain knowledge of it, but because I by-chance remember and sneakily--at least in my mind--apply it where it seems to fit.

I made a 1010 ont he SAT in 6th grade, a 13-something (with a near perfect score on the verbal section, which I didn't finish by two questions--accounting for the ten deficient points) even though I never bothered to study. Perhaps that's it. I've been told my whole life that I need tp study, but I never could do it. Thus, when I made good grades at all it was always with the impression that I was getting away with something undeserved--things I could intuit from the language or passages of text, or conclusions teased from memory (or rarely, rarely, rarely notes) from class.

For this reason, I sometimes felt like an intruder in the more academic circles at R.C.H.S. and U.N.C.G.--I was the imposter with superficial, by-chance gleaned knowledge who couldn't apply herself but so desperately wanted to fit. How could I be a Megan, an Ashley, an Evie, a Judith; a Nick, a Robert, a Joel, a Steven, a Nathan?

No. I've never felt smart, and I think this has been a huge burden on me for longer than I've known it. Just like I've never felt beautiful or--whatever it's supposed to mean--worthy of anything. Maybe this is why I'm so ungraceful about accepting compliments, or so incapable of believing them, even when believing them is what I crave. Maybe that's why I always get upset and defensive when someone insinuates that some bit of knowledge is elementary and yet--with all my education--I didn't know it. Wa sI spacing out when they explained the difference between an artery and a vein?

When it comes down to it, I think my problem is that I've beent rying to be smart everyone else's way. Recently, I listened to Simon Windchester's audio version of The Meaning of Everything for the second time--it's one of my favorite books--and it occurs to me that most of these vastly intelligent people were able to focus on one particular area of study much earlier and in an almost entirely self-directed way. Well, as everyone who knews me well udnerstands, my passions are language and grammar, though I don't always get it right.

Unfortunately, schools don't feel it necessary to teach the fundamentals of English grammar ins chool anymore. If a student can correctly identify a word as a verb or a noun, they've done a good job. Step up to an adjective, adverb, or--God forbid with woeful doubt--a preposition, it's almost a direct ticket to the university. Except for the part where, since grammar isn't taught anywhere but foreign language courses, one's ability actually to receive academic credit for being able to diagram a sentence down to the indirect object as signigied by the preposition-of-means-by-which is slim to nil. I just happen to be more interested int he logical structure of language and the etimology of words, and how the English language actually developed than I am in anything I could actually receive a grade for. (Don't end your sentences in a preposition! But I sound like a snob if I say "for which".)

Throw on top of that my inexplicable aversion to assigned reading, no matter how enjoyable, and we are left with an equation for academic mediocrity, which always seemed--and I was always told--should be more. Classmeates assumed I was on the honor roll, and I always wondered why.

Is there something about my rambling, disorganized way of speaking that makes me seem smart? I hate the way I talk, flitting from subject to subject and spiraling unnecessarily deep into issues that don't need more than a concise explanation. Is it an aura, or intelligence by association? I always felt like a bit of a Wizard of Oz among academic types--"Don't mind that girl behind the curtain..."

Today (yesterday by the time this will go up online) I taught my manager in a 50-minute class on idioms,a nd it was a lot of fun. Taking a leaf out of James Murray's book--idiomatically speaking; I did not rip a page out of the OED--I supplied illustrative quotations for each idiom. It occurs to me now that a great idiom is: "think outside the box." This is considered a positive idea, I think, but seems to run on the assumption that whatever extra-box-minded person it's applied to has at least a basic mastery of what's already in the box.

I despise the box. I wish it to be burned along with my high school physics textbook, my eighth grade English teacher, misogynists, child molestors (and molestrixes, though forgive me if I forgot the proper plural), and people who smoke in publically trafficked areas. For my academic misery, I blame the box. It symbolizes what the world of academia believes are the basics that all students should know. To a certain extent, I agree--the basics of math, science, history, literature, language, and art should be compulsory through a certain level. It's the extent to which the contents of this box are regarded--to the exclusion of everything outside--that infuriates me.

My abilities are very unbalanced. I can read The Canterbury Tales in Old English with only a little help from a dictionary, but I still don't know my multiplication tables. 8x6 is not automatic for me, rather, it becomes 8 + 8 + 8 = 24 x 2 = 48. If that isn't bad enough, I get worse when math starts taking the numbers away. It's not that I don't think I'm capable of understanding--I think I am--I just don't have enough of an interest to spend that much time devoted to it when my energy could be devoted elsewhere. And it was.

Through middle school, through high school, through university, what the heck was I doing if not studying? I was writing. Online R.P.G., fanfiction, lyrics, and countless finished and unfinished works of prose, and I was always longing for support from someone who would make me feel validated. Maybe that's why I remember every compliment a teacher ever gave me on my writing--Mr. Pearson, My. Pinkney, Dr. Marschall, Ms. Sorocco, Dr. Busonik, Brandon, and even Lee's grudging admittance that my details were well realized and vivid--but couldn't quite get the same satisfaction from anyone else. A compliment from a teacher was like a step closer to feeling like I could stand ing hte foyer of Academia. It was like a nod from the box.

I'm very concertned with the believability of my writing. Just because it's fantasy doesn't mean the work itself shouldn't be as realistic as possible. This year alone, I've had three memorable research tangents, the first of which came from attempting to find something suitably cream-like and non-perishable Arianna could use to sweeten her coffee during her journey to Einah Donuul. This sent me on an hour and a half hunt on Wikipedia researching the history of the marshmallow plant before, turning up nothing, I finally just made something up. Later, I scrapped that too, deciding that, princess or not, Arianna just didn't need cream that badly.

The second--equally interesting and slightly more fruitful--search was for the sake of a swimming scene in my period samurai piece. I wanted it to take place in a tidepool--a brackish tidepool. On this whim, and for the sake of description, I took off on a research quest bent on discovering if and how such a setting could occur and what kinds of life forms I might find there, specifically with respect to Japan. One of the involved characters being a fisherman, I felt obliged to see what some of these animals might provide food-wise.

That particular bit of research yeilded both a confident description and a--probably life-long--aversion to eating uni or sea cucumber. Ever.

The third research tangent I remember sent me off for about five hours studying the ancient Japanese pantheon. At least I found out why Inarizushi--white rice wrapped in sweetened, deep-fried tofu--is called such.

I promise all of my research doesn't end up about food.

In any case, anyone who was curious about where my time goes, there's your answer.

I wonder, then, when I put so much effort into my chosen field, why it's still not academically equal to studying. Perhaps this was my own misconceptionl I believed too hard int he importance of appeasing the disciples of the box. True, they were the ones who held the keys to my future doors, so a certain amount of attentionw as due them, but I didn't need to spend so much time angsting over six invisible walls, pounding my head and me heart and my self-esteem agaisnt them for eight years of intelligent higher-education.

I, who so hate the box, have spent too much time bemoaning its restrictions that I effectively restricted myself within it, saying constantly "I can't, so I never will be," while never letting the "I can, and I am" be important enough to me, because it wasn't esteemed in that box.

Int he end, I must admit that a great deal of this torture is my own fault. There are joys in the box--European history, classics, James Joyce and Shakespeare--that I should have let be my remaining Hope. Well, the hourney was long and hard, but I've finally stumbled my way through to a very healing realization: there are thousands of boxes restricting us, and I come to mine now as a belated Pandora, finally realizing the mistake with my own box of troubles.