4 years ago, when I realised that I really wanted to become a writer, I began, in order to sound much more mature than I actually was (what 18-year-old doesn’t want to act the adult?), writing in a grandiloquent, orotund and highfalutin style. Or in layman’s terms, I started using big words. And not just a few, but every single big word I stumbled upon in my reading or looked up in the thesaurus. In literary criticism (according to Wikipedia), this is often referred to as purple prose.
Now I know I’m not the only one who has done this. I have the audacity to claim that this is a phase all writers will inevitably go through, or at least be tempted to. And I surmise that this occurs during the late teenage years to the early 20s, when one is at the peak of intellectual curiosity as well as ambitious desire, the merging of the two resulting in a spontaneous combustion of perfervid fanaticism that stimulates a temerarious mortal solely fuelled by the accelerated effervescent dynamism of… damn it, I’m doing it again, aren’t I.
But seriously, it’s almost a necessity to go through this phase in order to mature as a writer, especially if you feel naturally inclined to use big words – otherwise, you’ll forever run the risk of postponing said habit to a later date, which could be rather detrimental; a stunt of growth, in essence. The earlier you experience this, the sooner you can look back and realise just how ridiculous you sounded – and never do it again.
George Orwell, in his well-known (and utterly brilliant; a must-read for all writers) essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘, makes fun of precisely this type of writing. He takes a verse from Ecclesiastes and translates ‘a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort’ as a parody:
Good English (original):
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Modern English (his parodic translation):
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
I highly recommend taking the time to read his essay in entirety – he brutally picks apart in detail what is wrong with the second type of sentence and condemns the prevalence of such ‘modern writing’.
Understand, I’m not saying one shouldn’t ever write like this. A writer who does this extremely well and whom I have the utmost respect for is Ian McEwan. His prose is brilliantly formulated, a sure trademark of graduating from the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing course, arguably the most prestigious M.A. in the country (of which Kazuo Ishiguro is likewise from); and yes, at times slightly pretentious, but overall simply a pleasure to read. Here’s an excerpt from his most well-known novel Atonement:
‘She was on course now, and had found satisfaction on other levels; writing stories not only involved secrecy, it also gave her all the pleasures of miniaturization. A world could be made in five pages, and one that was more pleasing than a model farm. The childhood of a spoiled prince could be framed within half a page, a moonlit dash through sleepy villages was one rhythmically emphatic sentence, falling in love could be achieved in a single word – a glance. The pages of a recently finished story seemed to vibrate in her hand with all the life they contained. Her passion for tidiness was also satisfied, for an unruly world could be made just so. A crisis in a heroine’s life could be made to coincide with hailstones, gales and thunder, whereas nuptials were generally blessed with good light and soft breezes. A love of order also shaped the principles of justice, with death and marriage the main engines of housekeeping, the former being set aside exclusively for the morally dubious, the latter a reward withheld until the final page.’ (p. 7)
[McEwan, Ian, Atonement (London: Vintage, 2002).]
The passage above isn’t simple prose, but it isn’t overbearing either. Every word is placed in this particular order in careful calculation by McEwan, painting a full and satisfying portrait. The sentences naturally flow from one to the next, creating a gratifying cohesiveness.
As I mentioned above, Kazuo Ishiguro graduated from the same Creative Writing course as McEwan, but one glance at Ishiguro’s works shows that his prose style is entirely different from McEwan’s. I’m oversimplifying here, but where McEwan’s prose is elaborate, Ishiguro’s is simple. Here is a passage from Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day:
‘As you might expect, I did not take Mr Farraday’s suggestion at all seriously that afternoon, regarding it as just another instance of an American gentleman’s unfamiliarity with what was and what was not commonly done in England. The fact that my attitude to this same suggestion underwent a change over the following days – indeed, that the notion of a trip to the West Country took an ever-increasing hold on my thoughts – is no doubt substantially attributable to – and why should I hide it? – the arrival of Miss Kenton’s letter, her first in almost seven years if one discounts the Christmas cards. But let me make it immediately clear what I mean by this; what I mean to say is that Miss Kenton’s letter set off a certain chain of ideas to do with professional matters here at Darlington Hall, and I would underline that it was a preoccupation with these very same professional matters that led me to consider anew my employer’s kindly meant suggestion. But let me explain further.’ (pp. 4-5)
[Ishiguro, Kazuo, The Remains of the Day (London: Faber and Faber, 1989).]
You can immediately notice that Ishiguro tends not to use many big words, yet his sentences are intricately and deftly formed; his style is natural and flows smoothly. I would even claim that Ishiguro’s prose requires less of an effort to read than McEwan’s, at least for the average reader.
Ultimately, I’m not saying which is right, or which is better. Each writer has his own style, and as proven by McEwan and Ishiguro, both can be equally effective. I personally enjoy writing in both styles depending on the content and context, though I often endeavour to strike a balance between the two. For personal reflections or musings, I’m more lenient in allowing highfalutin writing. But for prose, especially if meant for others to read, I need to keep myself in check. This is my method of keeping myself accountable (for prose): if I’ll never say that in real life, most likely it’s too eloquent.
With that said, I present below 2 of my written pieces from 2010, which I appropriately titled ‘Ramble I’ and ‘Ramble II’ – they were precisely that. I relied on stream of consciousness and big words to write these exhilarating products of mumbo-jumbo.
Keep in mind, these were written 4 years ago and I didn’t edit a single thing, as embarrassing as they are, for the purposes of illustrating what I mean by grandiloquent musings, aka trying to use as many big words as possible in order to make yourself sound highly intellectual even at the risk of being incomprehensible, when in reality no one cares and everyone thinks you’re a pompous arse who just needs to shut up.
So please read with gracious, gracious allowance.
by Justin Lau
The mystical realms of the unknown signify a complex infrastructure behind the impermanence of religion. I often wonder about those who claim that there is only a co-existence of humans and nature, nothing more, nothing God. Just how valid are these so-called arguments? It’s true, we do have the tendency to brush off any surreal indications that might possibly degenerate into an attestation regarding our nonsensical beliefs. But they still are our beliefs.
As a Christian, I’m subject to various discrepancies presented to degrade my belief in a higher being, or spiritual deity. Nothing new. The Lutherans, Calvinists, even the Gauls have experienced it. Hundreds of years later it continues to prove to be a rather hazardous and persistent hobby of humanists, realists, and existentialists (even romanticists, but they’re preoccupied with the more passionate side of life. ‘Don’t mix love and aesthetics with politics and religion,’ they continually emphasised).
Just like Atlantis, or the behemoth, or the Yeti, or the Knights of the Round Table – it’s the very mysteries behind the unexplainable, the unsolved that baffles but incontrovertibly stimulates the mind. Many cats are killed in the process but to no avail. ‘Just an illusion for comfort created deviously by our God-given… (sorry) ‘superbly crafted’ (more politically correct and likely to offend fewer people) brains.’ We have a rather exquisite imagination, creating fantasies that are out of this world. How hard is it for us to create dimensions to get lost in, to mix reality with our originality? Not hard at all, which is precisely why we do it daily. But the remaining concern is whether there exists a clear and rational distinction between this idiosyncratic behaviour of ours with the profound state of mind that confidently seeks to place THE truth in our minds.
The thing about Christianity, or religion for that matter, is the continued self-assurance that what you believe in is true, despite the fact that there is nothing you can see or tangibly handle to support your claims. They (the opponents) quickly pounce on that fact – like a starving dog stumbling across a slab of red meat and devouring it before anyone else takes it away. Despite creating fantasies and images imbued in our minds to make us feel better, behind every mask lies a realist. However crazy you may be, however dreamy, it all boils down to whether you’re dumb enough-slash-so far from reality to sign your own death contract, and no one is that stupid (unless they lose the essential key to survival: hope, but that’s another matter for another time). And thus they (again, I refer to the opponents) aim to eliminate whatever key you hold desperately that would otherwise prove them wrong by introducing the palpable phenomenons of this world; ironically, they would follow that up with the continuation of their deep slumber in their own lost, senseless dream.
Sometimes things happen that are supernatural, ‘out of this world’, and we blink twice, thrice even, to figure out if it’s again part of our dreamy imaginations (or reality, depending on which perspective you’re looking from) but we’re struck invariably by the truth of the matter: it really did happen. It’s happened before, hasn’t it? Whether you like to admit it or not. Then you blame it on your ever-wandering brain and worry that maybe your ingenious fabrications, your conceptions have gone much too far to provide the desired comfort that we politely but firmly requested.
But in the back of your mind, something continues to nag. Nag, nag, nag. Doesn’t go away, refuses to leave you alone. Forces you to ask the question, “Is there really something out there that is not a figment of my imagination that actually wants to interact, to socialise with me, this unbelieving doubter and realist who is aware of children dying of hunger daily and accepts it humorously as part of life?”
There’s a point where you have to draw the line between fiction and non-fictitious events, or even thoughts, and I lay on the table for you, the possibility that though you may not like it at all, there are occurrences that are entirely unexplainable and beyond our common capability of understanding, but could be more than possibly true.
And He is involved in it all.
© Justin Lau, 2014
by Justin Lau
There is an unappeasable dwelling, and stirring, of a vile hatred deeply engrained in the amygdalae of multiple human brains, whether the subjects are conscious of it or not. The steady growth of said inconsiderate (being an understatement, obviously) homo sapien emotion has regrettably led to its own demise, yet oblivious and completely lost in their own fantastical world, they fail to grasp the essential enormity of this problem. Not only a current problem; it has been ongoing for centuries, passed down hand in hand from one age to another. If this possessing trend is to persist, it can only and inevitably mean the eventual extinction of our beloved (now that’s a paradox) race.
This has not gone unnoticed by Him, who sits upon the throne, who comforts us in times of distress, who listens when we need someone to listen, who loves when we need some love. He is pained. His limbs are being torn from His body, flesh ripping, bones breaking. Each piercing stare, each utterance muttered based on bitter grudges, each hurtful word: a stab in the side, a rope around the neck, a shot to the head. When will the gravity of such a situation be recognised and acknowledged? Will it ever be?
We are the designated doctors, the approved nurses, the certified counsellors, the ones with the knowledge and power to heal. We are fuelled by the fiery blood of One who has noticed, and coincidentally (not), the only One who emerged alive from our tainted, uncontrolled and decisive attacks, not necessarily unscathed and unharmed – what He experienced is nothing compared to the extent that we deal with; it’s unfair, rude even, to begin to compare – but without a doubt, most definitely alive, and kicking, that is our butts, to get us in action, and to inspire even the most terrified to venture into the unknown, equipped specially with His divine power (how can we lose confidence? it conquered even death) to overcome our greatest enemy. That can only result when we give matters entirely to the One for guidance, for His power, and for the most powerful weapon of all: love.
How ironic that we must surrender completely to conquer all!
© Justin Lau, 2014
Now that wasn’t too bad, was it? Oh, complete trite? Well, I agree.