Thursday, July 14, 2011

Storytelling with a List [of Words]

I'm baffled by my own title, here. List. Do I mean that we are going to tell stories sideways? From a boat? Dashboard dictionary says: "List: 1. a number of connected items. 2. the scene of a contest or combat. 3. a selvage of a piece of fabric" as well as "lean to one side, typically because of a leak or unbalanced cargo." My hands automatically typed my own name "a Lisa" instead of "a List" and I had to go back. Again, words matter. In this case, I want to talk about telling stories via a list of words. They are connected somehow, occasionally they do lean, and I hope they don't fight too much.

Of Words. Had to add those two words. They should have been the final elements of the title. Okay. I see how it should go. Let's begin here. I purchased an artist's book several years back; the copyright date says 1982, but that's earlier than I would have found it, so it's hard to say when exactly it came into my hands. The book is built on the concept of words and dictionary definitions. The book is called Amour by Andrea Kelly. (I can't find her on the internet and I don't even know where she was from, so Andrea, if you are out there, your book is a great example of a found and shaped story. Nice illustrations, too!)

Each page has one word and its dictionary definition. The words in a list tell a fairly familiar and simple boy-meets-girl scenario: amour, alone, boyfriend, compliment, fun, hug, kiss, desire, care, difference, anger, lovelorn, mourn, lovesick, beautiful, stunning, together, sensual, fondle, love, sweeetheart, end. However, if you stop to read the definitions, you get a more complex picture. "alone. apart from anything or anyone else / the hut stood alone on the prairie 2. without involving any other person / to walk alone / 3. without anything further; with nothing more; only / the carton alone weighs two pounds…" That's the idea. And it works. Definitions are rich with meaning. "Rich with meaning" is overused, but I mean it anyway.

Talking Alphabet, 1994

Roy Blount (pronounced "blunt") Jr., panelist on NPR's Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me and prolific author, wrote two books devoted to words and definitions: Alphabet Juice (2008) and Alphabetter Juice (2011). At the title links you can also find a video of Blount reading and an interview. The books contain words and phrases that Blount has collected and presented in alphabetical order with definitions from several dictionaries (including online sources like with his own thoughts, anecdotes, jokes, and stories added for flavor. He muses on the sounds of the words (good ones he calls "sonicky") as well as the definitions. I keep his books by my bed, not to put me to sleep, but to put me in a good mood for dreaming, and a good dream might give me a good idea for a good story. (Looking back at that last sentence I'm finding that all those goods are starting to look scary, as if they were goons or something, the opposite of what I mean.)

Blount's entries are as short as a single sentence, like "horror story, all I have so far: 'It was all knots and bulbs and slime and veins and it was squirming in the undergrowth making a noise like k-k-k-k, like telling a horse to go only harder'" (141, 2008) and "discalced: This is my idea of a bad word. Means shoeless, barefoot. From Latin dis- and calcere, to fit with shoes. Hardly anyone will recognize it, and it fails to evoke feet" (61, 2011). Most entries are one or two paragraphs. One of my favorites is for "page turning" (180, 2011), which is too long to quote and too wonderful as a whole to pick apart. You'll just have to read it. Longer entries (from five to seven pages) are: "gillie, girl" and "metanarrative, pig and possum throwing" in Alphabetter Juice (99 & 151) and "wrought"in Alphabet Juice (347). Nice to have an excuse to examine words and to tell connected stories.

One NFL Superbowl there was a Google ad that also used words to tell a story. Superbowl! An ad! I needed a hanky at the end. ("Hanky" was first used as a word in the 1890s according to a word origins website; from the 16th century "handkerchief": a hand cloth to cover.) Here for you, if you haven't seen it, is Parisian Love.  A larger version is here.


Lauren said...

I got really excited about that commercial when it aired, too! And, speaking as a fellow word-lover, thank you for this wonderful post. It reminded me of something I've done a couple times when I'm working on a story: made a list of all of the words or phrases I Google as "research" in writing that story. Sometimes I think it would be really interesting to then turn that list into a prompt for writing something new. And how different from the original writing it would end up being! :)

Linda said...

Hi Alisa and Lauren-
I have gotten into reading Dean Young's "Recklessness"and I love it. I have been finding a lot of two word combinations that I love that I want to make a list of and also he uses words that are not in my vocabulary which makes me want to look them up...another list!