The Truth Board

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The Truth About the Fact: An International Journal of Literary Nonfiction

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The Truth About the Fact: A Journal of Literary Nonfiction is an international journal committed to the idea that excellence in the art of letters can play a vital role in transforming the planet we share.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Don’t be a Phony: Write Like You Speak, Speak Like You Feel

Holden Caulfield, the moody phony-phobic narrator of J.D. Salinger’s classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye, speaks to the absurdity of affected eloquence in response to his friend’s newly-enhanced vocabulary: “He kept saying they were too new and bourgeois. That was his favorite goddamn word. He read it somewhere or heard it somewhere. Everything I had was bourgeois as hell. Even my fountain pen was bourgeois. He borrowed it off me all the time, but it was bourgeois anyway.” I’m not denying that big words are fun to use nor am I advocating their erasure from the English language. What I’m saying is that when words are used primarily to impress as opposed to clarify, their use reflects not only on the insecurities of the speaker, but on the dupability of the audience for eating up such gold-plated crap. Salinger’s Caulfield is right on the mark again in his opinion that “people always clap for the wrong things.”

In academia, over-complexity has asserted itself as a crucial component of success. It is a crutch that many of us have grown, and have even been encouraged to depend on. If you don’t want to put in the time and effort, speak or write in abstractions and dense verbiage (as I may or may not be doing right now), obfuscate your meaning as completely as possibly, and you’ll probably be well received by the majority of your professors (and hopefully the readers of this blog ☺).

Not all of us are guilty. For those of you who haven’t fallen victim to the temptation to use “advantageous” or “bourgeois” with unforgivable frequency, I applaud your Herculean strength. Regrettably, some of us are not as tight and toned, myself in particular. I present myself as a case study:

My foray into technical writing started when I entered college. I realized early on in my studies that an honest and straightforward analysis would almost always get me a lower grade than one that was abstract and crop-dusted with flowery language. I did well in my introductory writing courses, and at the encouragement of my professors, declared English as my second major. During my first two years of college, I thought I was genuinely improving as a writer; but in truth, I was simply altering my language without advancing my ideas. I was Ayn Rand covering Green Eggs and Ham. I was masking simplicity of thought with complexity of language. I was a grade-A phony.

I’m now a second semester junior and have nearly a perfect GPA, which I am entirely undeserving of; because in all honesty, the lion’s share of my work has been nothing more than cleverly worded nonsense.

When you write and speak above everyone, the room is always quiet. Articulating yourself plainly and from the heart allows everyone to enter into the conversation. It creates an environment where people no longer have to hide behind the opaque clouds of academia and are once again able to confront the human experience as, God willing, humans. Because who really wants to wade through a hot stinking pile of coma-inducing academic writing to arrive at a conclusion that should be universal. By encrypting our experiences, we only undermine their relatability, and so distance ourselves from each other…

…and ourselves. Writing is at its best a process of self-discovery. But by assuming a voice that betrays our own, personal progress is hard to come by. We develop personas, not persons.

Just like the middle class is being lost, I believe “middle language” is as well. To give you a better sense of “middle language,” imagine it being somewhere between James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and your twelve-year-old sister’s text messages. Lets get back to plain ol’ talk, the kind we used to have with our grandmothers on their saran-wrapped couches.

To reclaim the middle and become truly affecting writers, we must be mindful of four developmental stages: (1) Thinking simply, writing simply (2) Thinking simply, writing complexly (3) Thinking complexly, writing complexly (4) Thinking complexly, writing simply.

Many of us never get past that third stage; but with a conscious effort and an honest heart, we can hopefully limit our use of “bourgeois” to discussions on Marxist theory.

~Ian M. Johnson


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