Jim Stasiowski, writing
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On Page 241 of “Slip of the Knife,” a thriller by Scottish author Denise Mina, the protagonist describes her sister as “smoking fluently.”
That combination of words surprised me, much as the sister’s act of smoking cigarettes surprised the protagonist. The sister, a nun whose previous life seemed vice-free, apparently had taken up smoking, and other un-nun-like behavior, behind the protagonist’s back.
In fact, as the protagonist observed, her sister appeared as skilled at smoking as a longtime nicotine addict.
But “smoking fluently”? In my experience, the adjective “fluent” and its adverb were used only in reference to the speaking or writing of languages. I confess that I had given no thought to other potentially fitting contexts. If a nun can smoke “fluently,” can Usain Bolt “run fluently”? Can Fred Astaire “dance fluently”?
Turns out, they can. “Fluent” derives from the Latin “fluere,” meaning “to flow.” The dictionary’s first definition is “flowing or moving smoothly and easily,” and a woman’s deft handling of a cigarette certainly would qualify.
I love to read. As I write this column, I am two-thirds of the way through “Slip of the Knife,” and I still don’t know how Mina, a well-regarded author, is going to reconcile the plot and all the subplots she has scattered throughout these pages, which illuminate the detective work done by Paddy Meehan, the protagonist, a Scottish journalist who regularly shows her foibles and flaws, including her own smoking.
But as vital as plot and character are, they are not the only joys of reading. Words, especially when they are unusual, original and daring, delight me and should delight all of us who practice the art and craft of writing.
I delight, too, in the instances in which writers send me to the dictionary. Looking up “fluent” was fun. It drew my eye to “fluid,” which also derives from “fluere,” a confirmation that “smoking fluently” (even “fluidly”) makes sense.
Here’s a description from another novel, “The Flamethrowers,” by Rachel Kushner, in which the narrator has just met a man at a dinner party: “An auburn beard tumbled down his chin like hillside erosion.”
I marvel at such skill. In my best moments as a writer, I sit and wonder if I can come up with such concise yet evocative phrases as “smoking fluently” and “hillside erosion.” I wonder, too, if Mina and Kushner tried six, 12, 20 or more different combinations before deciding on those two, and whether they wonder, to this day, whether those combinations actually worked as they had hoped.
I’m retired. I have more time to read, and more books piled up on my bookcase, than ever in my life. And novelists have time to hone a sentence or phrase until it is art.
So how does that apply to unretired reporters (and even editors) on deadline?
They don’t have unlimited time, but if they use “not enough time” as the fallback excuse for everything a story or sentence lacks, they never will rise above the mediocre.
In August of 1992, Michael Kelly wrote for The New York Times a profile of James Carville, then an adviser to presidential candidate Bill Clinton.
The story opens with Carville on the telephone to someone, and Kelly succinctly captured Carville’s occasionally manic personality: “On a recent morning, yelling into his telephone receiver as if outraged to find it in his hand, he was almost hopping up and down in his anger.”
Kelly probably had more time than the average reporter, so coming up with the hilariously apt “as if outraged to find it in his hand” might have been the product of several tries. But if we assume that the constraints of time mean newspaper writing is to have no such rewards, why would any of us do it?
Retirement means I have free time, but it also means I miss my own thrills in practicing what creativity journalism allows. In my working years, I always looked forward to the day we were all told to gather writing-contest entries, not because I thought I’d win awards, but rather because I loved looking back at what I had done, searching for moments of wit or insight, moments that not only revealed facts or background, but also my individuality.
Too often we convince ourselves that a newspaper is so severely restricted to sober facts that we must suppress our creativity, lest we be accused of diluting the value of our reporting.
That rigid restraint ignores the fact that most readers will keep reading only if they enjoy it.
THE FINAL WORD: What is the past tense of “to weave”?
If we’re writing about the act of creating something, whether physical (as a basket) or mental (a story, a poem, a novel), it is “wove”: “The machine wove the thread into fabric.”
But if we’re writing about a person or vehicle that is moving through a congested area, the past tense is “weaved”: “Miller weaved through the crowded city streets.”