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Feet to the Fire

May 23, 2011

Lazy.  There is no other explanation.  I took an English major in college because it is what I do.  Nothing is quite real, nor has fully happened, until I compose it into words, at the very least within my own head.  I love language, crafting and refining an idea until it is so precisely rendered as to transfer cleanly from my mind into the mind of another.

But living here, in a non-Anglophone land, I’m losing that deep grasp of my mother tongue.  Using it less is only part of the problem.  My Italian is rudimentary… at best.  I still think mostly in English, but have to transcribe what I need to say into what I am able to say, so even my thinking becomes simplified.

This blog is an exercise to keep a sharp edge on my English.  It isn’t working.  With the decision to post more, part of the reward for writing has become pressing “Publish” and seeing the finished product.  Instant gratification, but it is not the quality of work I want to put out into the world.  Too much of the daily content crossing my screen and settling into my brain ~FaceBook posts, certain other blogs, Comments, “news” websites~ is absolute dross.

Full disclosure: I checked the definition of “dross” just to be sure it meant what I thought.  Electronic dictionaries save me so much time!  I used to get distracted reading all the adjacent entries.  In elementary school I feared the teacher saying, “Look it up,” not because I disliked doing it but because so much time would be lost before I could close the book.  Children teased me about my vocabulary, “You read the dictionary.”  I never understood how this would be insulting.

dross |drôs; dräs| noun

something regarded as worthless; rubbish : there are bargains if you have the patience to sift through the dross.

• foreign matter, dregs, or mineral waste, in particular scum formed on the surface of molten metal.

Perfect!  In fact, I did not know the origin of the word, but it is perfect.  Our language is beautiful, shining, and fluid.  But without proper attention to the process, it cools and congeals, obscuring its highest potential.

When I picked up The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin, I devoured it like a starving soul.  I hadn’t even noticed the depth and richness lacking in my recent diet, but it was just so satisfying that I had gobbled up the whole book almost before I realized it.  But there was a free sample at the end!  He’d written another.  I paced myself through those chapters, savoring his way with language.  The stories take place in early 19th century Istanbul, which is partially responsible for their attraction, but not entirely.  Goodwin’s research is exhaustive, his crafting of phrases spot-on.  His writing is intellectually appetizing, causing one to want even more.  Happily for his readers, there are so far four novels in this series about detective Yashim, eunuch, cook, and sleuth: The Janissary Tree, The Snake Stone, The Bellini Card, and An Evil Eye.  For those interested, Mr. Goodwin has posted a video about Yashim’s Istanbul.

Basking in the glow of excellence, I am inspired again to wring out of this language every morsel of nuance and power available to my humble gifts.

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