Happy as a verb

Happy yoda

We experience joy (n). We are joyous and joyful (adj). We act joyfully and joyously (adv). We enjoy and rejoice (v).

Our lives are marked by sadness (n). We sadly (adv) sadden (v) into sad (adj) feelings.

But to happily (adv) greet our happy (adj) world in the hopes of finding happiness (n), what do we do?

What is the action that instills happiness?

Self-help bookshelves and an internet of blogs and podcasts roll back and forth across the happy landscape, and yet for so many of us, happy is an elusive creature.

It is all well and good to say that the first step to happiness is choosing to be happy, but I have yet to see any evidence that this is the only step in the process. What comes next?

Happy

Even within our political and social doctrine, our language is vague.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

No one can rob you of your life! No one can rob you of your liberty! Good luck with the last one.

Happy is such an elusive concept that our language completely fails us by refusing to give us a verb explaining how to reach this state of Nirvana.

We grieve. We love. We anger. We frustrate.

We elate. We bore. We amuse. We abash.

We envy. We lust. We frighten.

In conferring with colleagues, it seems French and Spanish suffer the same fate.

Are humans so determined to be miserable that we are willing to idealize happiness but never expect it will happen? Talk about your negative feedback loop.

If you have yet to find happiness in your life, perhaps you can take solace in the idea that no one in human history truly expected you would.

For an end-state of such wondrous simplicity, the achievement of happiness seems monumentally difficult, which makes me wonder…

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

—Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

What if the absence of a verb for happy is not a failing of language, but rather is a clue to a failing within ourselves? Perhaps Yoda was right.

What if happiness is not a state to be achieved, but rather is a ground state waiting to be rediscovered like some great monument buried by centuries of sand?

Perhaps happy is who we are, and for whatever reasons, we as individuals and as communities have simply buried our happiness under the detritus of our lives and society’s expectations.

Perhaps the first step to achieving happiness is not deciding to be happy. Rather, it is deciding not to be everything else.

mosaic floor

Excavations at Chedworth Roman Villa, Gloucestershire, UK. Property of National Trust, used without permission. (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chedworth-roman-villa)

At the outset, this may seem like an insane challenge, but at the very least, everything else (the non-happiness stuff) is something we understand. It is something tangible in our lives. It is something we can tackle one step at a time to reveal the beautiful mosaic of happiness beneath.

I don’t know about you, but I find greater hope in

“Life, Liberty and the recovery of Happiness.”

Illiterate in 3 languages…all English

canadianEnglish

“That which we call a rose, would by any other name, smell…”

William Shakespeare, Bad Line Break theatre

As many of you know (or have quickly surmised), I am Canadian, and more specifically, Anglo Canadian. Unto itself, that’s a pretty cushy thing to be in this country.

In choosing to live as a writer, however, I added an otherwise unnecessary twist to my life—I forced myself to learn English as a second language.

Wait. Didn’t you just self-identify as an English-speaking Canadian?

Yes, I did. But I’m a Canadian English-speaking Canadian.

And one of the first things you realize when you become a Canadian writer is that you will probably starve for lack of work.

Now, I’m not knocking Canadian writing, whether fiction, for film and television, journalism, what have you. It is easily some of the most beautiful writing available in the English world. But it is often written to (if not for) an incredibly small market, and opportunities to succeed are therefore often few and far between.

If feels like 8 writers encompass the entire Canadian television landscape. And name a Canadian movie. (I’ll wait.)

Nope and nope.

Nope and nope.

Okay, now name one not directed by David Cronenberg or Denys Arcand.

I was once offered a job as the Editor of a Canadian biotech magazine—yes, I used to be even more nerdy—for $30kpa. And yet, already on my resume was a job working for an American biotech mag that started around $65kpa.

Bottom line is thank goodness for my passion to write, because my passion for money has taken a beating.

(Side note: This was a choice I made and for which I take full responsibility. I don’t mean this to be a “life is so unfair” rant.)

What this has meant, therefore, is that to make it as a writer, I have had to learn English as a second language. In this case, American English.

Recently, the BBC published a short article that tried to explain Canadian English within the context of its British and American counterparts. Rightly, the author noted that the differences were more than a matter of spelling (e.g., centre v center; honor v honour). Rather, the differences also manifested in idioms, speech patterns and word choice.

As long as everyone's having fun

As long as everyone’s having fun

As with most Canadians, I had a bit of a leg up on learning American as our proximity to the border (mere kilometres and even fewer miles) means we are inundated daily by American film and television programming. But I also had the additional benefit of having been married to an American, and a Southerner to boot (more on “boots” later).

Where I would recommend taking the 401 across north Toronto, Leela would suggest taking 66 from Fairfax into Washington. Luckily, we were both practical enough to set aside arguments about whether we needed to go to hospital or the hospital.

All this to say that although the differences between Canadian English and American English can be subtle, they can easily explode before the eyes of the unsuspecting.

Writing for an American biotech magazine and working with American editors was something of an ESL boot camp. And over the intervening 15 years, I like to think I honed my American skills to the point where you suspect I am from Minnesota or Western New York (hello, North Tonawanda).

In fact, I’m going to rely heavily on my multi-Angloism as most of my writing, whether for money or in my screen- and novel writing, is aimed at American audiences. And although my primary goal remains writing the best story, my secondary goal is writing it in the most innocuous way. I don’t want my writing to “read” Canadian.

Versus

Truth be told, I don’t want my writing per se to be noticeable at all. If it is, I’ve taken the reader out of the story.

This is not to say that I want my stories to be bland, but rather that I want all of the art to be in the story itself, rather than the more mechanical aspects.

In my Canadian stories (so far a sitcom pilot and screenplay), which are set in Canada, involve Canadians and target Canadian audiences, I write Canadian. For pretty much everything else, I write American.

Should I start targeting British audiences, then I’ll spend more time learning British English, and make fewer spelling changes.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to bounce back and forth between the multiple Englishes like a character out of Monty Python.

What’s it aboot?

Anyone can make fun of how Canadians communicate (or don’t). Goodness knows Canadians do. But I have to admit that I struggle with the whole “oot and aboot” phrasing that American audiences in particular seem to see as a Canadian phrase.

It’s not that I think we pronounce these words correctly so much as we don’t say “oot”. Rather, we say “oat”.

As I mentioned, I was married to a Southerner, and one day, we had a lengthy conversation about the word “South”. Try as she might, Leela could not get me to pronounce the “ou” without it taking on a surreal emphasis akin to “owwwwwww”.

Instead, I would say “Soath”. And instead of “about”, I would say “aboat”. And as I made a point of listening closely to Anglo-Canadians speak, I never heard a single one say “aboot”. It was always “aboat”.

That being stated, I will totally cop to “eh”. It’s us. End of story.

In other words

Word up!

Word up!

According to a Global Language Monitor survey from 2014, there are 1,025,109.8 words in the English language. (Not sure what the 0.8 word is.) And based on further research, this tally makes English anywhere from 5- to 10-times larger than most Western European languages.

Depending on who you ask or possibly where, a native English-speaking adult has a functional vocabulary of anywhere from 10,000 to 75,000 words. Thus, on a regular basis, we use about 1-10% of the words available to us.

Many of those words have similar if not identical meanings and can often be used interchangeably with slight variations in implied meaning or significance. Hell, a British clinician with a list-making fetish famously went out and tried to catalogue these word relationships, offering encyclopedic lists of alternates to the most commonly used English words.

A man with a list (or maybe that's just how he sits)

A man with a list (or maybe that’s just how he sits)

So, given this profusion of synonymic wonder, why am I seeing an increasing number of stories—novels, screenplays, etc.—that seem only capable of the low end of the vocabulary spectrum?

And I’m not even talking the big words here. I am talking the simple words we use every day and yet which hold little more meaning than their strictest definition. Words like “said”, “walk”, “enter”.

Now, I am not suggesting people necessarily have to write with a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus next to them, something of which I have been accused on occasion. But while exsanguinating your latest cerebral machinations into the fibrous folds of the human record—sorry, I digress—why not make the most of the words that are at your disposal?

For example:

Hearing a cry from the other room, Cecily walked through the door.

Now, Cecily may indeed have “walked” through the door, but that tells me absolutely nothing other than her transitional geographic location.

What was Cecily’s emotional state and how eager was she to discover the source of the cry?

There are so many other words—common words—in the English language that will tell us so much more about Cecily than the fact that she moved.

What about strutted, strode, skipped, crashed, bolted, dashed, raced, blasted, crept, snuck (sneaked?), sauntered, staggered, bounded, tripped, stumbled, inched, crawled, or fell?

Each of these words tells us so much more about Cecily’s relative state of confidence and sense of urgency, and any one of these in place of “walked” prevents the writer from having to later explain her emotions with a second sentence.

In some cases, people will append adverbs to offer greater insights into the emotional state of a character, but again, even this can often be avoided through use of more descriptive verb.

For example:

“You’re crazy,” Philip replied angrily.

Definitely better than just “Philip replied”. But what if Philip did more than reply? What if he screamed, shouted, barked, bellowed, screeched, roared, or cried?

Again, each word offers a slightly different take on Philip’s emotional state and gives us a sense of whether he is angry at his target or terrified by her.

All the kids are doing it

All the kids are doing it

And what holds true for verbs, also holds for adjectives, and particularly as some of the simpler ones can be relative.

The precise height of a tall man varies significantly between someone who is 5 ft 2 versus someone who is 6 ft 1. And again, the adjective has an opportunity to add an emotional or psychological angle to the description.

Rather than “tall”, what about towering, mountainous, tree-like, statuesque, cloud-scraping, looming, or neck-straining?

Or instead of a specific age (unless the precise number is vital), what about world-weary, worn down, spry, vivacious, ancient, wizened, infantile or cadaverous?

Got your back, kid!

Got your back, kid!

Again, I don’t think we need to discard the presocialized anthropoidal biped with the bath water, but particularly in our writing, I think we need to make better use of the wealth the English language affords us and open ourselves to more precise and effective word choices.

Together, we can strut the walk and hallelujah the talk.

Bible or Anachronism – The Elements of Style

EoS

As we approach the 100th anniversary of this well worn tome on writing correctly, I would like to survey my social media environment to determine how often Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is actually referenced by people on a regular basis.

NOT do you own it.

NOT have you cracked it open at some point.

BUT do you actually use it to improve your writing.

OR do you not even know about what I am talking.

Those of you who know me well, already know my stance on the book. At the same time, as I have seen the book referenced countless times as a classic must-have, I have come to consider that my bias regarding the book may have been a product of the era in which it was thrown at me, and thus, I should be open to reconsidering the tome.