Saturday, January 26, 2013


From the deep fonts of inspiration the words flow.  The craggy-browed writer sits in his sparely furnished study, oblivious to the wintry drafts seeping through the chinks in the plank walls, his spaniel lightly dozing on the rag rug.  He hears only his higher calling, to create.  Create!

One of the slightly mildewed volumes on his beloved shelf of classics--Homer, the Bard, Suetonius (who?)--bears on its spine the most revered name of all: Roget.  This is really the secret of the transported writer: when the brain comes crashing up against a stoic brick wall, it has only one recourse.  The thesaurus.  If you don't have one, you don't write much.  A lot of that vaunted creativity actually comes from categorized lists of blindingly small type on hundreds and hundreds of thin leaves.

Or, nowadays, when we need our information instantaneously--when even touching a few keys seems too laborious, much less consulting the alphabetized backmatter in a book, and we now demand it from the transfer of unseen heat from a fingertip on the screen itself--we open a new window and call up Thesaurus. com.  I open that window somewhere in the second or third paragraph (to foreclose dents on my walls caused by sudden concussion with a very hard head) and leave it there, to be called up in a second by the frustration that is for me the preeminent emotion of writing.  The thesaurus is my balm and salve, and I can go on.  For another sentence or two.

Yet nothing is itself alone, anymore, online.  Even the multitudinously cross-referential work, like the thesaurus in its essence, is now outwardly bound to an equally vast commercial web.  Every site knows where you've been, and it shows you motorcycle gear you must buy; read a news site, and it offers discounts on medications for the ailment mentioned in a memoir you are reading and wanted to learn more about.  Apparently, you have (or want) everything you ever looked at.

Thesaurus. com offers "targeted" (which says only they aim, not that they hit) ads based on the word you are searching, while your forehead is still more or less intact.  It took me a while to notice they were there; ads are just one more annoying cost of business online, and they become easy to tune out, just as in the olden days we used to go into the other room during commercial breaks (which they tried to circumvent by boosting the volume, as if the commercials weren't already maddening enough).  But when I started to look . . .  Who, who on earth compiled these?  (And how?  Millions of words, matched to their "appropriate" commercial synonym.)  What poor cubicle drone in India works for a company that won the contract to sift through billions of possibilities, to fulfill the bizarre obligations of his job?

If you are able to see it in the right light, far from a cynical nuisance, these ads are a value-added proposition for the writer: jokes, delivered along with the right (acceptable, adequate, advantageous, all right) word (concept, designation, expression, idiom).  Herewith, a few from my latest assignment.  I scratch my head.

miraculous                "Buy products made by monks and nuns"

reverberate                "Become a social worker"

evidence                     Master Dispute Settlement


recurrent                     Showers for the Disabled

agnostic                      "Could you be a Muslim?"

provoke                        Anger Management Classes

complicated                  "All metegenics ship free"

invective                       The Motley Fool

heinous                         MSW at online university

rouse                             Bottle-top Filtration System

On second thought, I find that the results mirror the thesaurus itself: a coin toss between literalism and the beautiful randomness of language, connecting us with things we never knew we needed, but might.  Just might.



Pierre Sim said...

It now became a necessity for me to read your profound thoughts on words and about the essential details of life. Unfortunately, I cannot share my discoveries with others. They would not understand and would refuse to penetrate such an immaterial universe.
Thank you for the real literature coming out of your wonderful mind.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

But you share many beautiful photographs, Pierre! (Not to mention comments.) Oh, and the knowledge that one's words are not circling in outer space, unseen, like a thousand satellites in the dark.

Thank you so much.

Joe Sokohl said...

"re-current: n. The act of pouring more water through a hose onto the body again and again." Yeah, that makes sense ;)

Oh, and Suetonius? My favorite quotation of his, from Lives of the 12 Caesars--"Some have accuseme of writing stories that are not true. Well, if they're not true, they should be" [loose translation, but it's there. As Thurber said, "You could look it up."]

Sal Paradise said...

I'm glad you are working so hard, Melissa. Keep your butt in the seat....Can't wait to read you again.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

We should have guessed you'd be up on your Suetonius, Joe! (I think I'll use this quote on t-shirts for my new company, employees: 1.)

P.S. I know someone who's read all six volumes of Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." I confess I did not make it far into the abridged. Not far at all.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Sal: Thank you. Just a big, sighed "thank you."

Kevin G. said...

When it comes to being bombarded with "stuff" while on this demon box, I'm pretty adept at just seeing what I want and leaving the rest.....a technique I unwittingly honed to perfection in high school.
And now and again something memorable sticks. Much like the following gems:
"Information is not knowledge". and
"Imagination is more important than knowledge". - Albert Einstein

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Well-cut gems indeed, Kevin.

What percentage, do you suppose, of the incalculably vast amount of information available online actually constitutes knowledge? Just wondering. And wondering.

Kevin G. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin G. said...

Guess that depends on one's understanding of the "info" that is constantly being regurgitated at the speed of light.Not trying to re-invent the wheel but often the content renews the debate on, artificial intelligence vs. creativity.And when the clarity of concise descriptive words gives way to codified unimaginative acronyms, you can shelve the thesaurus,summon the geek and hammer out WTF .....or perhaps the more lyrical, qu'est-ce que le fuck.

Anonymous said...

Once againg good writing on your part. I was trying to think of something witty to say, but I was at a loss for words.

Dale F. Gruver

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Dale, have I got a book for you . . . !

Right on, Kevin. French, Latin, whatever will confuse 'em. Terrific strategy. Merci!

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