Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Conflict of Interest: Fully Loaded!

Loaded Words! Redundancy! Reductivity! Reruns! Pillaging from the Cosmos! How to Deal
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Conflict of Interest

“Sometimes a word is important enough to you that you must keep using it, whether other people find it loaded or not.” — Sara Tilley

"In writing fiction, I balk at using the word 'BEAUTIFUL' to describe someone's looks. Well, now I do." — Johnny Pigeau

We use them all the time. Loaded words. Sometimes we just cut and paste fragments, and they’re in there. Adjectives, nouns, even proper names.

How about "delicate" or "drastic." Or “FEEL.”

We take them from songs, news, television and quotidian routines in pedestrian culture or from our list of standards and practices that float in the deluge or rise from our brain dregs. Rework them? Cut them out or include them? We hack away or gloss over them as we race to the sentence’s finish line, in the subconscious word flow, only to read them later in horror or with concern. Word preference is entirely subjective, but that doesn’t mean the words we chose to use aren’t loaded or appear that way to others. As associate press missives continue to be the standards by which we read texts, as we continue to accrue new sayings and expressions, as we continue to comment on each other’s social media status day-in-day-out, the temptation to use quick-fix, knee-jerk words also swells. So what the hell are we doing with language?

As I reasearched and wrote this column in late July and early August, I feared that my discussion of this subject would make writers worry that the words they had used in their forthcoming books had already been used elsewhere, or possibly stood to be judged for their lackluster meanings. That nothing could be further from the truth became apparent when Trillium Book Award-nominated fiction writer Ken Sparling sent back his answer, which I will leave verbatim.

All words are loaded in the sense that we all have some unique investment in every word we use - they are loaded with what we bring to them, loaded because we bring to them something no one else brings to them, our history with that word, our unique encounters with that word in all that we have read. Good writing creates a space where the reader can bring her or his own invested meaning to the word, and the best writing allows us to bring our own unique understandings into that space the writer creates and then come out the other side of that space feeling like we've experienced the word anew, so the next time we find this word in someone's writing, we have a newly forged investment to bring to the work. It isn't that this or that given word is loaded. It's the pleasure that we can bring to another person by offering up a word in a context that honours what that other person brings to the word and doesn't try to definitively restrict how they come away from reading the words we present to them.

While Sparling’s approach and reaction is deep, philosophical, exacting and reader-meets-author oriented, it destroys my entire chaos theory, I did want a specific example of a loaded word to hold up to the crowd and see what they thought.

Jenny Sampirisi, BookThug editor, novelist and poet, whose debut poetry collection Croak. is coming out in moments with Coach House Books this fall, says a big loaded word for her is “DAGGERS.”

“Because daggers show up in writing, yet who's ever seen one? I think things get described as daggers because it's an easy way to show danger. The word itself sounds like "danger" but the short hand comes off as archaic and forced.”

Toronto playwright, poet and critic RM Vaughan says the loaded word can take on all forms and appear in between literary acts. “Years ago, I was doing a reading with bill bissett and I said to him, “Should I go first or should you go first?” and he got very serious (in his particular way) and told me that “SHOULD” was the single most evil word in the English language — because it is both bossy and people who overuse it often think they know the future, or what is right or wrong.” Since the encounter, Vaughan says he balks at the word “should” and has grown a phobia around it, going to any lengths to avoid using it. “I also try not to use it in conversation, but I don't think as fast as I should prefer.”

For poet and novelist Mike Blouin (Wore Down Trust), the loaded-word syndrome is more subtle, quotidian and laid back. “I try to hunt and eliminate the word "AND" for its usually superfluous quality. And that's all I've got. See what I mean?"

“A loaded word is a word that can cause harm in some way, or that is perceived capable of causing harm. My mind turns first to racist terms when I think of loaded words - while just composites of vowels and consonants like all other words, these particular terms have weight, and they can really cause damage, depending on who uses them, in what context, and for what reason," says east coast novelist and playwright Sara Tilley (The Skin Room). “I was just reading Carson McCullers’ last book, Clock Without Hands, and in it she is very free with a particular racist term that most people these days would consider to be quite loaded, especially when used by a white author.” Tilley points out that the book focuses on a specific time in the Southern US, so the parlance she found in the book was “appropriate and even necessary to use.”

The concept of a loaded word, however, is perhaps something more psychological and subjective than anything else. Writers can choose any word in the universe to describe a person, place or thing, project or concept, but we have no control how said word will be perceived. As Tilley explains by sharing a story about a past theatre grant rejection, “a word can be perfectly safe to you and loaded to other people.”

Tilley recalls being told that the jury had rejected her project because her pictch used the word “FEMINIST,” which was too political. “When I changed the mandate to say 'women's theatre' I started getting my grant funding again. (I have since decided to 'stick to my guns' and use my 'loaded' feminist mandate and let the juries decide if they can 'man' up!)"

I wanted to include some formative insight into my decision to write about loaded words in this column, but felt that if I started off with my usual pontification, the piece would seem manipulative, self-serving and rant-like. So I will tuck the rant into the end here.

There was (always is) a catalyst to this column’s topic. It was a talk with an artist friend in Toronto whom I refer to as CSR (chief social rival), to crib a term from Arrested Development. He suggested that the title of my forthcoming (possibly) novella was in fact a “loaded word.” I balked, wondering if the rest of the living world would feel the same way. Then, in a moment of Zen, I was reminded of George Costanza when he was workshopping his comeback for an upcoming meeting. He was convinced "Jerk Store" was the perfect joke to go with, Jerry and Elaine began providing ample doubt of the joke’s impact. George refused to alter his joke, insisting Jerk Store was the perfect comeback, firing off, “I'm not gonna dumb it down for some bonehead mass audience!”

I also believe that given the voluminous amount of appropriated and associate text we digest in a given week, it's quite easy for us as humans (as we are not machines) to rely on default terminology, that we are perhaps, at times, inherently lazy.

The loaded word awareness campaign is new, something to chatter about and discuss whilst working on bits of dialogue, a press release or even the title of your next underwater sea monster erotic thriller.

Nathaniel G. Moore is curating his first art show this fall at White House Gallery in Kensington in mid-November. His last book was the novel Wrong Bar, which might be an ebook later this fall. Follow him on twitter @NathanielGMoore

Bonus: Here is a little song about words you can listen to while reading this column again. "All My Little Words" by The Magnetic Fields, a personal favourite. I hope you enjoy.

For past columns by Nathaniel G Moore, please visit Open Book's Archives.

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